Mobile phones as a basic human right: Perspectives from Sri Lanka

Moderating an event organised by a professional accounting association recently that had Hans Wijesuriya, CEO of Dialog Telekom in Sri Lanka as a guest speaker, I picked up on how he characterised Dialog, which he said was about “giving wings to equality” (exact quote).

This prompted me to ask him how he, as a professional businessperson dealt with decisions to cut off mobile and internet services for thousands in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka whenever there was a military offensive by the Government of Sri Lanka.

I didn’t get a straight response. The same point posted online in other online fora have also only ever managed characteristically highly defensive responses.

To be fair, it’s not an issue that’s easy to speak about in the open and for obvious reasons. However, all telcos in Sri Lanka seem to be supinely willing to obey Government orders to shut down voice and data services without even so much as the threat of going to court to challenge the constitutionality of such edicts and allowing the legal system deliberate whether the need to ensure operational security in theatres of war trumps Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to communicate.

The following programme segment, from Young Asia Television’s No War Zone series, explores this issue in greater detail, and brings out some of the complexities of communications provisioning for communities caught up in violent conflict. Important to recall here is the position taken by Hamadoun Toure, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations telecoms agency, when Myanmar cut off all internet access. He said,

Secure access to the Internet is a basic human freedom that “needs to be preserved, no matter what, and no government has the right to cut off its citizens from cyberspace

Emphasis mine.

Connected to the video above is this one on Sri Lanka’s first mobile based news service.

Read the story behind the video here and a review of JNW’s performance in reporting an event related to the on-going conflict in Sri Lanka and in emergency warning.

9 Comments on “Mobile phones as a basic human right: Perspectives from Sri Lanka”

  1. Paul Currion
    November 2, 2007 at 9:41 pm #

    I have a couple of problems with the idea of a particular means of communication constituting a “basic human right”.

    The first is that although I think that there is a case for a “right to information” (particularly as societies develop their technological capabilities), the right to information does not equal a right to mobile phone coverage, or the internet, or any particular means of communication.

    The second is that creating new rights that are not fundamental to human existence, such as internet access, a) opens the door for trivial claims against purported rights, and b) weakens existing human rights structures by expanding the definition of human rights until it is functionally useless.

    Thirdly, it is worth bearing in mind that some human rights law can be derogated in times of war to IHL. Given the sensitive nature of communications in conflict situations, it seems unlikely that there will ever be any point at which governments will agree that civilian communications are outside their interests.

    That’s not to say that things won’t change, but I think that approaching it from this angle is not going to be a winner.

  2. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    November 2, 2007 at 10:43 pm #

    Hey Paul,

    RTI / FOI in our societies is increasingly dependent on, facilitated, mediated and framed by technologies of access, which by definition include ICT. The internet may not be a central mechanism through which citizens communicate in countries like Sri Lanka today, but this is changing and fast. Studies prove that for example the so-called BOP segment of society use mobile phones in a manner that we use our PCs. RTI, if you agree has a strong case going for it, cannot exist without communications – to suggest otherwise is untenable in that it argues for legislation without any means through which it can be rendered meaningful for citizens.

    This is also not a “new” right, which is why I included Article 19 of the UDHR alongside the as yet undefined (in hard / international law) right to communicate. Article 19 already states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression… to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Even if you don’t believe in the right to communicate, Article 19 is fundamental to Human Rights and is precisely that which is vitiated every time communications are shut down. (You may also wish to read the First Monday article I’ve referenced in the post, which brings out in some detail the arguments for and against the right to communicate). Further, there are suggestions that banning Cellphones in Conflict Zones can actually be counterproductive.

    Finally, the post is made specifically in regard to the arguments used to justify cutting off telecoms in Sri Lanka and is a point I and others have explored in detail earlier. The parochial politics that governs these decisions, in the name of “national security”, goes unquestioned.

    The point at the end of the day is not whether you, I, the Government or anyone else is right or wrong, but it is simply that we must be free to argue our point in the open, using any media available to us, without fear of harm or death. This very discussion you and I are having is not one that exists in Sri Lanka today. In a way, I’m being unfair to Dialog in this post – they, and everyone else in the business community don’t and can’t really voice their opposition to that which they are told to do – and this is what is most frightening about a regime more totalitarian than democratic.

    Best,

    Sanjana

  3. Paul Currion
    November 3, 2007 at 1:00 am #

    “RTI / FOI in our societies is increasingly dependent on, facilitated, mediated and framed by technologies of access, which by definition include ICT… RTI, if you agree has a strong case going for it, cannot exist without communications – to suggest otherwise is untenable in that it argues for legislation without any means through which it can be rendered meaningful for citizens.”

    I agree, but if you go down the path of specifying which communications then it creates quite a lot of ridiculous questions. What level of bandwidth meets peoples’ right to communicate? Is SMS sufficient, or should MMS be required? If cellphone coverage is unreliable, are my rights being abused?

    The reason that human rights legislation is usually vague in its wording is precisely because it has to be adapted to particular circumstances. For example, Article 21 states that “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country”, but does not specify what type of government that is, or what taking part means in practice.

    “This is also not a “new” right, which is why I included Article 19 of the UDHR alongside the as yet undefined (in hard / international law) right to communicate.”

    Article 19 describes freedom of expression, rather than freedom of communication, and I think there’s quite a difference between the two freedoms. In the UK, I am free to express my opinions in any media (ahem), but that doesn’t mean that I can force the national newspapers to publish my opinions daily on the basis that it is a human right.

    “Even if you don’t believe in the right to communicate, Article 19 is fundamental to Human Rights and is precisely that which is vitiated every time communications are shut down… Further, there are suggestions that banning Cellphones in Conflict Zones can actually be counterproductive.”

    As I said above, I just don’t think it’s a strong enough argument linking the two. I agree that banning cellphones is very likely to be counter-productive, and my personal view is that lines of communication should be kept open at all times unless they interfere with secure channels. All I am saying is that I don’t think that a human rights approach is going to be productive to this issue.

    “The parochial politics that governs these decisions, in the name of “national security”, goes unquestioned.”

    Now that’s clearly an area where we can make progress – generally, when governments claim to be acting on grounds of national security, I get suspicious. We should always challenge that, but I think it is more productive to challenge the use of “national security” as a political tool itself. Lobbying on cellphone coverage in itself is addressing a symptom, rather than the cause.

  4. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    November 3, 2007 at 8:25 am #

    Hi Paul,

    “What level of bandwidth meets peoples’ right to communicate? Is SMS sufficient, or should MMS be required? If cellphone coverage is unreliable, are my rights being abused?”

    I think market forces and competition address most of these questions. Monopolies and duopolies don’t, because there is no incentive to improve on the quality of service. Government’s can and must help by determining, as current moves in the US suggest, what exactly is meant by terms such as “broadband” so that consumers are better able to demand more value for money from service providers and in instances of very poor service, take recourse to legal action and consumer protection authorities as a means through which basic standards can be established and strengthened.

    Cutting off services that deny citizens RTI / FOI and the freedom to express themselves (ref. the video that suggests many in the conflict areas use mobiles as their primary means of communicating with family and friends to tell each other they are safe).

    For me, the right to communicate debate is interesting, but a tad academic, which is why I keep coming back to established IL in the form of the UDHR, for which in general there is scant regard in Sri Lanka today. Mobiles today carry news and information, are used extensively even in the poorest communities in Sri Lanka to communicate, are far more pervasive than PC’s and can elicit alternatives viewpoints to propaganda in a manner that communities marginalised / erased from traditional media. But you know all this, and despite your healthy skepticism re mobile phones in humanitarian aid (that I share) may I nevertheless suggest to you that mobiles in communities sans any other reliable means of self-expression become not just devices, but symbolically and in fact, a technology that emancipates.

    “In the UK, I am free to express my opinions in any media (ahem), but that doesn’t mean that I can force the national newspapers to publish my opinions daily on the basis that it is a human right.”

    This is beside the point, yet I fully agree and have said as much in a detailed critique co-authored recently with Article XIX based in London on Sri Lanka’s draft national media policy. I quote:

    “While the media as a whole will, in a healthy democracy, reflect the range of views held in society, it is impractical and unworkable to ensure that citizens, as the draft Policy suggests, have a right of access to any and all media.” (Page 4)

    However, as noted earlier, it is the case today that no real debate on the denial of communications to thousands of citizens, who are in no way connected with terrorism, for the sake of a narrowly defined “national security” paradigm. This brings me to your final point, where you propose that:

    “We should always challenge that, but I think it is more productive to challenge the use of “national security” as a political tool itself. Lobbying on cellphone coverage in itself is addressing a symptom, rather than the cause.”

    As Des notes here, “…in a situation where rights of people come second to perceived security issues, blanket cuts are considered okay. I hope those who are making these decisions keep in mind that it erodes the public’s faith in government, and in the case of the North and East, reinforces feelings of discrimination by a majority Sinhala government.”

    The lack of mobile coverage foments social and political discontent and exacerbates existing communal tensions. It is both a cause and a symptom – a cause of more more unrest in the future and a symptom of the politics that have given rise to the violence of today.

    I agree, it’s trivial in light of the other grave HR abuses in my country today, but for communities completely shut off from the rest of the world, with no voice, no way to get their opinions heard and no way in which the outside world can contact them, mobile phones are a lifeline – the denial of which has very serious consequences.

    Cheers,

    Sanjana

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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