March 2007

ICTs as Human Rights enabler

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“An important part of effective implementation would be to ensure equal and affordable access to information, to guarantee freedom of the means of communication, and not in the least to help build the necessary ICT capacity for all.” Rikke Frank Jorgensen, Henrik Lindholt and Lone Lindholt The Danish Institute for Human Rights

The 2003 Declaration and Action Plan documents that emerged out of the first phase of the WSIS consultations in Geneva acknowledged that equitable access to the information society was the most critical ingredient to bridge the information and knowledge divide. Though these are not legally binding, the success of the declaration is a signal of the political will to achieve concrete goals. These goals have been formulated in sync with the Millennium Development Goals, which sets targets to be achieved by 2015. Overall, the declaration outlines a commitment to address the access divide and bridge it to reach at least 50 percent of the population either through Internet, telephone or other means of electronic media.

The true gain of the conference was that the Summit specifically stressed that the development of the information society must be based on the human rights framework, and should respect and uphold the standards laid down in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The WSIS phase II at Tunis further reiterated a development perspective of the information society. The conference and the ICT4All exhibition provided an opportunity for multiple stakeholders to share, to network and to demonstrate a development perspective to the definition of Information Society. Divides exist because of technological barriers or due to education, access, governance, ownership, etc., and the global need to create specific opportunities to bridge them was reiterated.  Though the Internet Governance issue still remained unresolved.

ICT and Human Rights linkages

So, how does that really become a gain from the human rights perspective? Often when people think of human rights, they immediately conjure up faces of oppression and violence, state excesses or terrorism issues. However, when we begin to see the different angles of development, we realise that the development perspective historically has evolved from a needs based approach to a rights based approach. Gender equality and discrimination, equitable and complete access to technology and education, and resources for poverty alleviation can be argued from a human rights approach to the development perspective.

Have the organisations working to ensure that human rights issues and concerns are lawfully, socially and politically addressed, made effective use of ICTs? Have they benefited from them? The need to campaign, lobby and train their stakeholders, and find creative ways to reach the audiences, for advocating the rights and informing the stakeholders makes this an exciting area to explore.

Parallel to the development of the digital age and a year and half down the World Summit on Information Society held in Tunis in November 2005, and the gains made in building a collective understanding of what are the developments, issues and challenges for the evolving knowledge economy, is the gains made in the sector of Human Rights. The global definitions have expanded, so have the treaties signed since 1948 when the declaration was made.  ICTs of course include a whole array of tools and technologies, from the traditional telephones, mobiles, radio and digital media (photos, video, CD-ROMs, etc.) to the modern and most democratic of the tools Internet. With the advent of new technologies and new medium of communications, doors have opened widely for issues to go beyond national boundaries.

Internet, though a democratic medium still continues to be challenged by issues of governance. On the one hand, the Internet provides an excellent opportunity to free speech and expression, and on the other hand faces the worries of state to control and combat fears like terrorism and misuse by fundamentalist and destructive groups. How far are these fears real and how do we uphold the rights of the marginalised communities to express their concerns remains a hot debate.  According to Mike Godwin, a well known Digital Rights Activist, currently a Fellow of the Information Society Project of the Yale Law School, and much sought after speaker and advisor, “most people do not understand the nuances and blow up the challenges like forgeries, copyright abuse, pseudonyms, right to privacy, cryptography, and the hidden agendas, are blown out of proportion. There is a need to discuss, debate and understand these issues vis-

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