Thursday’s plenary session “Tech for Human Rights” provided delegates with a broad overview of how technology can be used to help human rights defenders speak out, to monitor human rights violations, and to mobilize the public. Three panellists who joined via Skype (Ramy Raoof from Egypt, Emin Milli from Azerbaijan, and Rakesh Rajani from Tanzania) talked about their experiences and made suggestions how Amnesty International could do more about using technology to strengthen its work.
The recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East have shown the impact communication tools such as blogs and social networks can have on mobilizing people to stand up for human rights. A well-known example is “A Tunisian Girl”, a blog by Lina Ben Mhenni, which has been a very important information source for Tunisian citizens working for human rights and democracy in their country. People in countries that restrict freedom of expression in the public “offline” space have realized that the online space offers them much more freedom to share information and opinions. Technology is developing rapidly and it’s cheap and widely available. It has become very easy to share information instantly across the globe. Mobile devices have become more and more powerful, so that people now have amazing communication and information tools at their fingertips, wherever they go. However, authoritarian regimes are keen on controlling the online space: you have probably heard of the “Great Firewall” used by the Chinese government to censor and control the internet in China. Our struggle for freedom of expression will increasingly be fought online. A recent example: A new Saudi terrorism law was leaked and Amnesty reported on it, and as a result Amnesty’s website was blocked in Saudi Arabia.
For NGOs, social media such as Facebook and Twitter offer new opportunities to connect with members, supporters and the public. Information about human rights abuses and calls for actions to end such abuses can be shared easily. But: Using social media for human rights activism should not lead to ‘feel-good clicktivism’. It should not replace offline ‘real-world’ activism, but complement and support it. Of course, the value of being able to rally supporters around a cause should not be dismissed. But real advocacy and impact-oriented activism must follow. As blogger Kevin Asuncion puts it: “Face to face, not Facebook to Facebook.”
The potential that new technologies offer to monitor human rights violations has not been fully explored yet, but there are exciting projects that show what is already possible. The Satellite Sentinel Project aims at using satellite imagery combined with field reports to provide early warnings about humanitarian catastrophes that are about to happen. Eyes on Darfur was a similar project by Amnesty International USA, part of the section’s work on Science for Human Rights. During the plenary session, video clips were shown that explored new ideas how we could get real-time information about human rights violations in order to prevent a situation from turning into a humanitarian catastrophe such as a genocide. For example, in countries where internet access is restricted by the government, satellite communications could be used to achieve stable and secure connections. People could be equipped with apps on their mobile phones that form an early warning system. With a press of a button people could signal when they see atrocities happen, and these alerts would automatically be geotagged (location information is added), so that a “heat map” can be created to show how unrest or attacks in a certain region spread. The maps could be supplemented by videos to provide evidence. Some of the things presented in the plenary might have struck delegates as “futuristic”. However, considering how fast technology is advancing, we can expect many things presented yesterday to be mainstreamed and play a very important role for our human rights work very soon.