Navigating Human Rights in the Digital Age

Navigating Human Rights in the Digital Age*

EU Institute for Security Studies’ interview with Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights

1 July 2020, Brussels

by Patryk Pawlak**


Already well-known in the human rights world, Eamon Gilmore has yet to become a familiar name in the tech and cyber community, but it’s high time they knew him. Gilmore represents the European Union on all human-rights related issues. That includes the impact of new technologies on human rights online and offline. He is an active advocate for social rights, a champion of the liberal agenda and a campaigner for women’s and LGBT+ rights. His next challenge? A world where digital technologies amplify human rights and dignity.

Eamon Gilmore is the man at the forefront of the EU’s global action on human rights. He describes his job as connecting the dots: “All our human rights voices should be mutually reinforcing. We should perform like an orchestra”, he says. It’s an apt metaphor that also highlights challenges of the job, bringing to mind as it does a conductor coaxing a harmonious performance out of a diverse group of musicians and instruments. But despite the challenges of the job, Gilmore’s message is clear: “The EU is the strongest regional advocate for human rights, multilateralism and rules-based international order. In the face of the erosion of these principles, our action must be more visible and more felt on the ground than ever, and our leadership more decisive and inspiring”. This is as true in the digital domain.

Balancing Human Rights and Geopolitics

Gilmore has a deep understanding of how technology can support the EU’s human rights agenda. As he told me, “Thanks to new technologies, civil society and human rights defenders can easily document human rights violations. Facial recognition has facilitated reunification of refugees with their families, digital databases have allowed identifying victims of enforced disappearances. What might once have taken official reporters months to assemble can now be snapped by a smartphone and instantly reported through social media”.

The EU is actively working to take advantage of these and other opportunities presented by new technologies, while also addressing the challenges they raise. Those are two of the priorities of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024, adopted at the beginning of 2020 with the aim of delivering “a new geopolitical agenda on human rights and democracy”. The Action Plan is expected to be endorsed by the 27 member states later this year.

Gilmore sees technology’s potential to help defend human rights on the ground too. To give one example, he said, “Several months ago, I met with a group of young girls from Kenya, runners up for the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, who have developed an app to help their friends and other girls and women to avoid and to combat female genital mutilation”.

One of the biggest questions now facing the policy community is how the EU can pursue its geopolitical objectives and compete with other major powers without compromising its human rights agenda. Countries like China are already using COVID-19 crisis to justify their digital authoritarian surveillance model, promoting it the best way to curb the pandemic. However, restrictions on freedom of expression and the absence of pluralistic media and an independent civil society make it impossible to corroborate their claims of the “effectiveness” of this solution in the fight against COVID-19.

Gilmore explains why he thinks that the current challenge is about more than just COVID-19: “We witness how the management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been characterised by control measures on freedom of movement and expression. Some whistle-blowers are being subject to enforced disappearance. We should not be misled by authoritarian narratives of tackling the virus. We should see the COVID-19 pandemic as a battle for human rights, but there is also a battle of narratives, and some narratives aim to discredit the human rights approach or human rights as such”.

Gilmore is convinced that this is exactly where the EU’s competitive advantage lies, and that it should become the core of the EU’s narrative. “The EU geopolitical objectives are informed by human rights. Human rights are in the European Union’s DNA and this is our strength, not our weakness. We cannot decouple our geopolitical presence from human rights and from our values. In fact, the EU has a strategic interest in advancing its global leadershipon human rights and democracy, with the aim of bringing tangible benefits to people around the world”. He adds, “in countries where the rule of law is weak, or where the judiciary lacks independence and where impunity prevails, citizens will always be vulnerable to the abuse of technological advances and encroachment on their rights and freedoms”.

Shaping a New Digital World

The difficult part may be convincing the EU’s international partners to follow the same path. But Gilmore has a clear idea how this could be done: “The EU must shape a new digital world, a world where digital technologies amplify our rights and dignity, where digital technologies are used responsibly. The new Action Plan is a good blueprint in this regard. It underlines that digital technologies must be human-centred. Not state-centred tools of control and surveillance, as we often witness in some parts of the world. Protecting the right to privacy and exposing and preventing disinformation are certainly among the main global digital challenges. The EU has also conducted groundbreaking work in this regard, for instance the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regime that upholds data privacy, the code of conduct with social media platforms to combat hate speech online, or all the current work on building legislation on human-centric Artificial Intelligence”.

The EU’s track record in other policy areas makes it a credible partner. It leads on the abolition of the death penalty worldwide as well as on the rights of the child. Over the last five years the EU has provided protection to more than 30,000 human rights defenders and has conducted 98 election observation missions. But Gilmore is also a pragmatist. “Forging this geopolitical human rights agenda will require strong political leadership and ownership at the highest level”, he adds.

Human Rights in the Shadow of a Pandemic

Our interview is taking place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and it would be impossible to ignore the crisis’ ramifications for human rights. Earlier this year, Gilmore published an opinion piece on this topic. In her statement at the informal briefing, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told Human Rights Council that COVID-19 is “a colossal test of leadership” that is exposing the damaging impact of inequalities in every society. And the EU High Representative Josep Borrell recognised that human rights must be at the heart of the EU response to the pandemic as well as the post-pandemic recovery.

So I ask, is this a good moment for the EU to exercise leadership and showcase its commitment to human rights – including in the digital domain? Gilmore has no doubts about this. “The pandemic is a battle for human rights, a struggle by all of humanity for the right to life, and for access to health care” he tells me, “Protecting the right to health also requires access to information, so that people are empowered to protect their own health and those of others. I stress the importance of resolutely countering disinformation with transparent, timely and fact-based communication and thus reinforcing the resilience of societies. Human rights are interdependent and indivisible and all human rights must inform our response to this pandemic”.

Disinformation and Freedom of Expression

Countering COVID-19 related disinformation is high on the EU agenda, so Gilmore and I discuss it at length. In times like these, access to information and free media are essential. But some governments are using this crisis as an opportunity to curb any criticism of their response. Free speech and media freedom are yet again under attack. Gilmore is clear: “The EU must not be silent on this. We should continue advocating for freedom of expression, both online and offline, for freedom and independence of the media and for safety of journalists. And let’s be clear, imparting information that is inconvenient for authoritarian governments is not spreading fake news. At the same time, we must expose real disinformation, which is a challenge to our open and democratic societies”.

The ongoing pandemic has once again shown the importance of the access to Internet for work, education and information. But Internet shutdowns by the governments in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Myanmar have undermined these freedoms. Josep Borrell, in his declaration on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, designated Internet shutdowns as one of the challenges facing freedom of expression in our time. Groups like Human Rights Watch have called for a moratorium on Internet shutdowns during the pandemic. Gilmore supports this idea, saying that “in our digital age, Internet as a source of information is irreplaceable. Internet shutdowns and various forms of censorship, often disguised as fighting terrorism or, now, COVID-19, are unacceptable”.

Old Issues, New Trends

We are coming to the end of our discussion, but I want to ask Gilmore about two more topics that I find particularly interesting. Nils Melzer, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, has cautioned that the Internet could be used to remotely target individuals through “cybertorture“: intimidation, harassment, surveillance, public shaming and defamation. So I ask him: is this something that the EU should be concerned about?

Gilmore acknowledges that new technologies and social media often create or expose new vulnerabilities in our societies. But he adds: “Cases such as cybertorture are not examples of new human rights issues. Rather, they are digital extensions of old violations of human rights. In years to come, these phenomena will likely gain in prominence. The EU will need to pay more attention to how new technologies and AI are instrumentalised to violate human rights. The new Action Plan provides a good and timely blueprint for our action in the area of new technologies and cyberspace. Digital technologies must be human-centred, not de-humanizing our lives”.

I am also curious about his views on the role of the private sector in the digital domain. Cooperation with the private sector is one of the key elements of the multi-stakeholder approach to ensuring a free, open and secure cyberspace. But we also know that several companies are responsible for producing software and equipment used by governments around the world to fight their political opponents and civil society. What can the EU and the international community do in this regard? Gilmore replies: “In today’s world, large business enterprises sometimes have more clout than states to shape the human rights situation in a country. How do we achieve that businesses are partners, not enemies, in making human rights a tangible reality on the ground? Many businesses have recognised their human rights role: corporate social responsibility, elimination of child labour, due diligence are all examples of businesses assuming human rights responsibilities. For some businesses, public shame and the negative impact on their goodwill is a strong deterrent from partaking in, knowingly or not, and benefiting from human rights abuses. Here, I see an important role for the media, whistle-blowers and human rights defenders, exposing these abuses”.

That being said, there is also an important role for the EU, he says: “The EU is a strong advocate of the UN Guiding Principles as a uniting multi-stakeholder platform. The new Action Plan is clear about our support of the UN Guiding Principles as well as on support of multi-stakeholder processes to develop, implement and strengthen standards on business and human rights and due diligence. In the UN system, much effort is spent to take businesses on board as human rights partners – through the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or the International Labour Organisation. The EU also has a unique trade system awarding zero import tariffs to certain developing countries providing they ratify and implement 27 international conventions on human rights, labour rights and environment protection (GSP+). Our sanction regimes and the strict control of the export of dual-use goods (items that can be used for both civilian and military applications) also limit business activities with ramifications for the enjoyment of human rights. Continued digitalisation and the rise of AI make the dialogue with tech companies more important than ever. Human rights must be at the heart of this dialogue”.

Before we conclude, Gilmore adds with emphasis: “Delivering on the EU’s geopolitical agenda on human rights and democracy is and must remain centred on people, on individuals and communities, many of whom suffer from violations and abuses of human rights. It is not an abstract geopolitical exercise”. Luckily, he sounds like the right man for the job.



*First published on Directions on 1 July 2020.

** Patryk Pawlak heads the Brussels office of the EU Institute for Security Studies and runs the Institute’s cyber-related activities. His work focuses on cyber, digital and tech policies of the European Union and other regional organisations. Since June 2016, he is a member of the Advisory Board of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise.