At the 50th session of the Human Rights Council
FROM Geneva, Palais des Nations, Room XX
As a rapidly evolving global health emergency, COVID-19 has compounded more entrenched political, social and economic crises. It has changed our lives significantly, jeopardizing years of progress towards achieving the SDGs.
It became clear that, given the physical distance imposed by the pandemic, digital technologies would become a key part of our new normal. In fact, the global response to the pandemic has relied heavily on technology and innovation in many areas.
New technologies have also proven essential to reduce the impact of the pandemic, to keep services running, to inform the public and to engage them in public life. Connecting via the Internet was a lifeline for millions of people, making communications, remote work and schooling, and even health care possible.
Yet the reliance on technology has also raised multi-faceted challenges.
First, social media has accelerated the spread of hate speech and the rapid spread of misinformation and fake news, including about COVID-19, triggering fear, mistrust and sometimes violence.
Second, digital transformation has left many behind. The offline population – almost half of the world’s population – remains disproportionately poor, rural, elderly and female; the majority of the 3.7 billion unconnected people are women and girls. COVID-19 has created the greatest education disruption in history, with a disproportionate impact on those without supportive and well-resourced home environments, further exposing the digital divide. Going “virtual” can also exacerbate patterns of exclusion and further undermine public participation.
Third, throughout the pandemic, state emergency measures have sometimes gone beyond what is necessary and proportionate to protect public health. Civic space has been constrained, with repression of peaceful assembly and expression, and threats against dissenting voices, including through digital surveillance. The COVID-19 crisis has shown weak to non-existent privacy protections associated with large-scale personal data collection. In some contexts, the data collected has been used in criminal investigations (in Germany and Singapore for example), undermining public confidence in government efforts to combat the pandemic.
The introduction of highly invasive surveillance systems, such as the use of facial recognition technology to monitor compliance with quarantine measures, has raised concerns, for example racial profiling. There is also a risk that exceptional measures, once in place, will not be lifted even when they are no longer justified by public health concerns.
Equally troubling was the scale of internet shutdowns carried out during the pandemic. In 2020, at least 155 internet shutdowns or an intentional slowdown in internet access were reported in 29 countries. Between 2016 and 2021, 52 elections were affected by closures and this limited internet access. Our Office’s report on this issue, presented at this session of the HRC, highlights that the closures during a global health emergency are undermining one of the only remaining channels for education, work and freedom of expression – thereby endangering countless lives and livelihoods.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Many countries still lack the necessary legal, institutional and good governance frameworks. Governments have a duty to protect citizens against the abuse and misuse of digital technologies. Looking ahead, we have a few key recommendations:
The pandemic has underscored that human rights should be at the heart of technology governance, based on the fundamental principles that underpin the Agenda for Sustainable Development; ie equality and non-discrimination, participation, accountability and transparency. The latter is of paramount importance for building trust and should guide state regulation of new technologies and the behavior of the private sector.
The requirements of legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality must be applied consistently.
Victims of human rights violations and abuses must have access to effective judicial and non-judicial remedies.
Any measure interfering with rights requires a solid foundation in clear and publicly accessible privacy and data protection law. Exceptional measures, such as intrusive health surveillance measures, should be phased out once the crisis has passed.
States and businesses should systematically exercise human rights due diligence with digital technologies to prevent and mitigate adverse impacts.
In 2020, the Secretary-General launched two initiatives responding to the urgent need to regulate the use of artificial intelligence: the Call to Action for Human Rights and a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. Our Office is developing UN system-wide guidance on applying a human rights-based approach to the use of new technologies, complementing the existing Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights of man. We must work together to mitigate the harmful use of technologies in order to realize their full potential.
I wish you every success in your deliberations.