New and Emerging Technologies, Business and Human Rights – Statement at the 76th UN General Assembly


76th Session of the UN General Assembly – High Level Week

New and Emerging Technologies

Private Sector Responsibilities to Promote Human Dignity Online

EU statement by EUSR for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

 Virtual side event, 22 September 2021





Thank you, Peggy (Hicks – moderator),

Dear Ministers (Dear Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, Dear Vice Minister Choi Jongmoon),

Dear participants,

Good afternoon from Brussels. I am happy to address this high-level event on behalf of the European Union.

The topic of our discussion – the interplay between new and emerging technologies, human rights and business – receives more and more attention. In today’s complex, intertwined and at times very “chaotic digital world”, it is important to “connect the dots”. It is important to assess fully the implications of new technological forces that shape our lives and the new powers of businesses as the key harnesser of those forces.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the digital landscape. On the one hand, it has accelerated our digital transition. On the other hand, this public health crisis has served as an accelerator to fast track the use of new technologies, including suppressing human rights through mass surveillance and cyber harassment.

States and non-state actors have an excellent basis to inform and shape their policy action or business activities: They have the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, and of course the robust body of international human rights law. The European Union has been involved in shaping and promoting these key UN guiding documents and we are one of the world’s most vocal advocates of human rights.

The EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024), adopted unanimously by all our 27 Member States last November, recognizes new technologies as one of the five priority areas of external human rights policy. It also aims to support the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles and to strengthen the engagement with the business sector on upholding and promoting human rights, anticorruption measures and best practices on responsible business conduct, corporate social responsibility, due diligence, and accountability.

The European Union strives to harness the potential of new technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, for the better enjoyment of human rights as well as to tackle challenges connected with the rise of digital technologies. Both at home and in our external action. By all actors. As our Action Plan puts it: “digital technologies must be human-centred”.

Over the last few years we have established strong standards of protecting data privacy (through General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR regime), or on combatting hate speech online (through the code of conduct with social media platforms). Legislative process is underway on a new Digital Services Act Package, which aims to provide for a clear set of due-diligence obligations for online platforms. A key objective is to improve users’ safety online while improving the protection of their fundamental rights.

Currently, the EU is preparing legislation on Artificial Intelligence with human rights-based rules regulating its design, development, deployment, evaluation and use. We are also working on new legislation introducing mandatory human rights due diligence for businesses. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen underlined last week in her State of the Union address: Human rights are not for sale – at any price. It is encouraging to see more and more businesses espousing the same view but more has to be done.

With the growing range of human rights being exercised through the use of digital technologies harnessed by transnational corporations, we need to redefine our strategies to protect these rights. We also need to acknowledge new forms of enjoyment – and violations! – of human rights.

We do not need to re-define human rights as such. New and emerging technologies may be sophisticated but the key human rights principle is simple: Human rights apply both online and offline. The same rights, whether political, civil, economic, social or cultural, must be protected online.

Putting these basic principles into practice requires joint efforts of civil society, human rights defenders, national authorities, academia, international organisations and the private sector. The role of private actors, including social media companies is of particular importance. This is why the European Union has been regularly discussing with companies such as Microsoft, Facebook or Google, ways to foster a human rights-compliant digital sphere.

I am glad that this event brings together these diverse actors. I am looking forward to our discussion.