Human Rights 2.0?

Firstly, check out Patrick Meier’s blog, iRevolution.

It’s rare that I unhesitatingly recommend a blog for its gripping content and this is one. Patrick’s extremely prolific and this is not the only place he blogs which makes it hard to keep up with his writing, but his significant experience and lateral thinking are evident in any of the posts.

Patrick’s post on Human Rights 2.0 is just one of the posts that caught my eye because Patrick deals with in theory what I am involved in practice – securing fundamental rights of peoples and communities at risk through technology. Patrick showcases an Amnesty International project – Eyes on Darfur – that I first saw at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium last year.

Eyes on Darfur

Patrick’s post with information on AI’s future plans and also the demonstrable difference Eyes on Darfur has already made in Sudan are hugely compelling examples of how technology can meaningfully help strengthen human security.

Human Rights 2.0

On the other hand, I’m a bit sceptical about the term “Human Rights 2.0”. It suggests to me some significant and irreversible progress made globally in human rights protection, when the more egregious cases of HR violations – beginning with the US and extending to governments such as we find in Sri Lanka today – take place with near total impunity and under the radar of the global media. This is not to undermine the importance of initiatives such as Eyes on Darfur, but the Human Rights 2.0 monicker suggests an evolution that frankly is a disconnect from the realities on the ground in many countries around the world. Though technologies such as Web 2.0 can positively transform the manner in which human rights advocacy and monitoring is thought of and actually takes place (InfoShare’s own system is one example) all the technology really does is to strengthen a wider and deeper awareness and appreciation of civil liberties often brushed aside for military and political expediency. In this sense, technology can be a vital witness to the visceral reality of human rights violations (though as I have written before, it may not always be impartial).

So whether it be in helping record incidents or locating them on a map, new technologies give activists new ways to hold those who violate human rights accountable for their actions. However, it is vital to recognise that these new technologies are also available to repressive governments, dictators and paramilitary groups. For example, the purveyors of commercial satellite imagery that AI uses do not (and cannot) necessarily discern between violators and protectors.

Finally, suggesting that we all “upgrade to Human Rights 2.0” is to me confusing, since Human Rights cannot be measured or thought of in the same way as web and Internet technologies. Perhaps the term requires a more precise definition that I encourage Patrick to provide. What would Human Rights 1.0 for example be in contradistinction to Human Rights 2.0? And what are the markers that one has upgraded to Human Rights 2.0? And say for example that initiatives similar to Eyes on Darfur are able to prevent wide-scale massacres, but are powerless to prevent the arbitrary violence against citizens by repressive governments or the continued violation of language rights (with significant implications on the larger human rights context). Would that still be Human Rights 2.0?

None of the presentations I make to human rights and media freedom activists use terms like Web 2.0, UNICODE, AES encryption, over the wire and on disk security, asynchronous access, RSS or GIS – features of human rights advocacy and monitoring solutions I’ve helped develop. For me, buzzwords du jour are less important than the meaningful empowerment of those whose lives are on the line when it comes to HR protection and who don’t have time to become experts in ICT. That’s our job. We all get a high when we see HR activists use our technology – they simply trust the system to deliver results they could not have otherwise achieved, in a manner and media of their own choosing and design. The underlying technology is, for them, invisible and unimportant.

What matters is not Human Rights 2.0, but about being as much of a pain in the arse as possible to those who violate human rights, by recording for posterity and with as much detail as possible, crimes against humanity and human decency.

Insider stories – Myanmar (Burma) and citizen journalism

Amidst the euphoria of citizen journalism content demonstrating to the world the brutality of the military junta in Myanmar and why, just as in 1988, this repressive regime through sheer terror and outright murder hold its grip on power, Dan Gillmor expresses a word of caution:

The questions of reliability and trust will be paramount in what’s coming out of Burma, Net or no Net. We are distinctly inclined to trust what we see from on-the-ground observers in cases such as this, where the regime is so odious that it’s tempting to believe it would commit any atrocity to preserve its power. We need to exercise some caution, and we need to sort out the reliable observers from the ones who will certainly use turmoil to push specific agendas. (Note: I am not pointing at anything in this case, just observing that it’s something to watch for.)

And even though the military seems to have cut off internet access, the stories, images and videos seem to be getting out. Other notable stories in this regard are:

A day to day account of the situation in Myanmar from the BBC including photos submitted by readers.
Burma’s cyber-dissidents, also from BBC
Ko Htike’s blog
Protests in Myanmar and Mobile Phones
Burma Digest
Democratic Voice of Burma

I’ve also written on how the Internet and web can be strategically used to challenge repressive regimes and encourage readers to pick up a copy of Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, contends that the Internet is not necessarily a threat to authoritarian regimes.

This is a sobering thought and is perhaps one reason why, even though the grotesque suppression of democratic dissent in Myanmar is plastered on websites, the military junta will continue to rule, even though their power will inexorably wane over time, requiring in the meanwhile even more violence to keep dissent in check. An indelible and damning digital record of the military rule is now on the web and will hopefully galvanise sustained international action to overthrow the military and restore civilian rule.

Using the web and Internet for democracy – Burma and others

“Images of saffron-robed monks leading throngs of people along the streets of Rangoon have been seeping out of a country famed for its totalitarian regime and repressive control of information.The pictures are sometimes grainy and the video footage shaky – captured at great personal risk on mobile phones – but each represents a powerful statement of political dissent.”It is amazing how the Burmese are able through underground networks to get things from outside and inside,” says Vincent Brussels, head of the Asian section of press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders.“Before, they were moving things hand-to-hand and now they are using the internet – proxy websites, Google and YouTube and all these things.”

Just as RCTV defied the Venezuelan government’s censorship and my own work on the potential of the web and Internet to support democracy in Nepal suggests, blogs and mobile phones are now being used by Burmese pro-democracy dissidents, as this BBC news report highlights.

“Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive,” said Ronald Reagan soon after stepping down as America’s president: “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”.

I’ve written extensively about how the web, Internet and mobile phones can subvert repressive regimes and how simple, practical yet effective and sustainable ideas for ICT in peacebuilding can strengthen democracy. This has also been recognised by Freedom House in How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy. And yet, what are the limits of online freedom and activism?However, as I note in Desperate for a Revolution:

The power of the internet and web is such that;

  • you can support these activities through open discussion on the web, which the organisations can then use as a measure of support for their work
  • you can flag initiatives you think are worth supporting financially through donations
  • you can flag projects that people can volunteer in to help build local capacities
  • you can use mobile technologies and Skype to create discussions amongst youth in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora on helping youth affected by the conflict
  • you can flag anecdotal stories from the field that engender hope
  • you can flag story ideas for the media to write on
  • bring to attention the issues of conflict and peace to those in urban areas not usually interested in thempost photos on Flickr that show communities engaged in initiatives that help strengthen democracy, development and human security
  • you can use meeting that bring together young bloggers to talk about ways that collaboratively highlight issues related to democracy and human rights
  • post soundbites and videos from personal interviews with mentors or those working in the field in Sinhala, Tamil and English
  • produce short documentaries that are pod-cast friendly – making content that’s hip and interesting to those in urban areas, but at the same time address issues of peace and conflict

Related posts:Nepal – Technology and DemocracyPublic Service Broadcasting – using technology for democracyBuilding peace through ICT – Ideas for practical ICT4Peace projectsDefeating repressive regimesDefeating repressive regimes – Take 2Related stories from news media:Bloggers silenced as curbs bring internet blackout‘Open-Source Politics’ Taps Facebook for Myanmar Protests