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Time for a Fourth Generation of Human Rights?

1 Mar 2018

  • Authors: Changrok Soh, Daniel Connolly and Seunghyun Nam

Time for a Fourth Generation of Human Rights?
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, From Disruption to Transformation? Linking Technology and Human Rights for Sustainable Development, launched to coincide with the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society engage with the topic of linking technology and human rights, and share their experience at the front lines of policy-driven research and advocacy aimed at leaving no one behind in an increasingly digital, automated world.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting economies, business models, and societies around the globe. But what about human rights concepts and practices? This piece argues that human rights defenders are not immune to the winds of change. Not only are civil society and international human rights mechanisms facing painful restructuring, but emerging technologies pose tough questions to traditional concepts, especially privacy and human agency. Far from being a rich country problem, these issues are everyone’s concern and require a new generation of human rights.

Changrok Soh is Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, and Director of the Human Rights Center at Korea University. He a Member of the Advisory Committee at the UN Human Rights Council. He has a special interest in the field of human rights and human security.

Daniel Connolly is Research Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. His research interests, broadly rooted in the study of the history of international relations and science and technology studies, focus on techno-political controversies and systemic change in world politics.

Seunghyun Nam is Research Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University. She obtained a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) from University of Pennsylvania Law School and her research interests lie primarily in international human rights law and criminal law.

Technology brings new opportunities for collaboration and protection of human rights

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as the digital transformation or Industry 4.0, has been passionately discussed by business people for quite some time now, perhaps because they have a lot of money riding on the outcome. Digitalization and datification not only create new industries, but also disrupt traditional ones. In the field of human rights, though, awareness has been slower to take root, developing haphazardly in response to public controversies, such as the sharing of personal information by tech companies or mass surveillance by intelligence agencies. We need a more comprehensive response. This piece argues that there is an urgent need for human rights practitioners to take a hard look at the challenges ahead, as the private sector is already doing. First, traditional advocacy practices and concepts are going to be disrupted. Second, these impacts will be global in scope. Third, only human rights can prevent an international race to the bottom.

Just as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting traditional markets and forcing private companies to innovate or perish, it also has the potential to destabilize the way advocacy activities are structured. Civil society, international human rights mechanisms and individual defenders will have to adjust to exponential increases in automation, new tools and possible job losses. The resulting digitalization of human rights work may parallel similar transformations in the private sector, producing leaner and more agile distributed networks of actors, a type of "human rights cloud." These individuals and organizations from anywhere in the world, connected via the web, would be capable of real-time interventions and innovative forms of collaboration. But are human rights organizations capable of making this transition, especially in an era when states and private sector actors are exerting increasing control over our online spaces?

But also creates new capabilities for human rights violations

Traditional human rights concepts are also under pressure because technology is creating new capabilities for human rights violations. How can privacy exist in a world awash with smart phones, interactive speakers and fitness trackers? Disaggregating this data to make it anonymous, despite solving the privacy problem, is still problematic because these datasets are used to train algorithms that are increasingly capable of predicting and even manipulating human behaviour. Emotional artificial intelligence (AI), for example, not only seeks to understand when people are feeling happy or sad, but also to strategically influence their moods. Imagine the potential of a bathroom mirror or a car that can cheer people up, or calm them down, or even heighten their alertness, all at the subconscious level, say by manipulating sounds, temperature, or with conversational cues. Now imagine this technology in the hands of a dictator. The datification of one generation, even if done legally, may leave subsequent generations exposed to new tools of control over which they had no say.

Not just a "first world problem"

The human rights implications of digitalization and datification are not just developed world problems. For optimists, these emerging technologies will allow some developing countries or regions to leapfrog stages of development—such as moving from pre-industrialization to post-industrialization in a single generation. Indeed, some of these technologies offer exciting solutions to old problems, like how to measure and meet the complex needs of diverse populations. Blockchain, a distributed electronic ledger, is celebrated as a replacement for many of the functions of financial institutions or even governments, and is already being used to track land ownership or help refugees. For pessimists, though, these technologies have the potential to exacerbate existing problems, with new industrial techniques, like 3D printing and automated factories, possibly turning developing countries’ large populations of young unskilled workers into a liability rather than an asset. Paradoxically, some advanced technologies, like drones, are even used first in developing countries because their regulations are more permissive or nonexistent. Similarly, weak privacy standards and data protection laws in developing countries may be leaving them uniquely vulnerable to cybersecurity threats, the misuse of personal data, and the illegal sharing of this data across international boundaries. Developing countries do not have the choice to wait and solve these problems later. In today’s world, hunger, poverty and the unintended consequences of advanced technologies are parallel problems, not sequential ones.

We must ensure that innovation does not mean a global race to the bottom

Interjecting a human rights perspective into the conversation about the Fourth Industrial Revolution is important because policy makers from around the world are approaching it like a race—which they all want to win. This "go-it-alone" mentality between developed countries risks turning into a race to the bottom, especially for labour standards and privacy protections. Innovation should not be used as a justification to erode human rights. The rise of the gig and sharing economies in developed countries, which can resemble the informal economies of the developing world, suggest that we may be entering a complex future in which the difference between developed/developing worlds is no longer so distinct, but overlap in complex ways. Phenomenal advances in some sectors of the economy may coexist with important losses of rights in other parts. For human rights defenders around the world, an important challenge is ensuring that productivity gains enhance workers’ rights rather than making them disposable.

As the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reminds us, "the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress." Yet interconnectedness can also facilitate control, dominion and marginalization in unprecedented ways. But there is hope. Each generation of human rights evolved in response to specific threats. In the first wave, they were civil and political. In the second and third waves, they were economic, social, cultural and environmental. Today, as a fusion of material, biological and digital technologies raises existential questions about what it means to be human, the time is ripe for a fourth generation of human rights to emerge.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.