Stockholm Internet Forum (30-31 May 2023) – Opening Remarks

EUSR for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Stockholm Internet Forum (30-31 May 2023)

The Role of the Internet and ICT during Crises, Conflicts and Disasters

Opening remarks

Watch the video recording here (from 28:49 to 36:03)

It is my great pleasure to address the Stockholm Internet Forum. I have visited Sweden twice earlier this year and I would have been honoured to be in Stockholm also today and engage with you in person on digital issues. Unfortunately, I could not join you due to my other commitments.

I want to thank the organizers, the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), for their invitation and the possibility to address the Forum with this pre-recorded message.

I have been working as European Union Special Representative for Human Rights since early 2019. There have been few issues of such wide-ranging prominence and impact as the interplay between new digital technologies and human rights. The Internet and digital technologies have opened up new avenues for the realization of human rights. At the same time, new technologies and cyberspace have become powerful malign tools of authoritarian states and unscrupulous individuals and corporations.

The European Union has recognized that new technologies hold both promises and threats for human rights. “Harnessing opportunities and addressing challenges of new technologies” is one of the five overarching priorities of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024). We have recognized it through our legislation with significant global impact such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act or the Artificial Intelligence Act currently in the legislative process. We have recognized it through our emergency support for human rights defenders at risk in cyberspace; through our strong advocacy for global digital rules, which are human-centric and rooted in human rights.

Today, there is a wide recognition that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. This very Forum was born in 2012 to reaffirm and promote this basic but wide-ranging tenet. And Sweden, at the UN Human Rights Council, played a major role in acknowledging the applicability of human rights in cyberspace. Unfortunately, the current state of human rights in the world is precarious. Democracy has been backsliding and human rights have been under increased attack. Authoritarianism is not only on the rise offline but also online. We must continue defending human rights online as well as the Internet as a powerful enabler of these rights. We must continue defending an Internet which is open, un-fragmented, free, safe, and secure for everyone.

The theme of this Forum is very timely. We have seen an avalanche of crises – in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar or Sudan, to name a few. With climate change, natural disasters have been on the rise too and exacerbated the humanitarian needs. New technologies play a very important role in preventing or addressing crises and their humanitarian ramifications.

In Ukraine, digital technologies are helping with the documentation of war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law committed by Russian invaders. With the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, we have seen an unprecedented mobilisation for international criminal justice, and support for the International Criminal Court.

This “Ukraine momentum” for accountability should be seized for our action against impunity worldwide. New technologies have an enormous potential to boost these global efforts. In the world of connectivity and digital technologies, it is increasingly hard to get away with atrocities and war crimes. The face of international criminal justice has been turning digital.

The EU, as the world’s leading humanitarian donor, has been looking into innovative digital solutions for helping people affected by crises. In fact, we have now largely moved past the era of advocating the use of digital tools. They are now increasingly deployed in our humanitarian action.

The European Union (DG ECHO) is financing and our partners are actively utilizing digital technologies. These include using drones for mapping and delivery activities, use of Artificial Intelligence to power early warning and predictive models, supporting information management and decentralised digital transactions with blockchain, advancing the use of digital and biometric identities to ensure access to aid, or sourcing of equipment and parts such as high quality prosthetic (artificial limbs) and orthotic (braces) devices in remote or conflict areas through 3D printing.

In Bangladesh, for example, the EU has funded a project aimed at improving flood forecast via digital tools. It includes inundation mapping by drones and the development of a digital information board whereby real time flood forecasting data and info are shared at district, sub-district and union level and directly with the Government Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre and people on the ground receive mobile voice SMS containing early flood information.

Today’s innovative and pilot digital tools will become mainstream solutions of tomorrow. We need to share experiences from the use of new technologies that can make our assistance in crises more efficient, more targeted, cost-effective and more environmentally friendly, while considering the opportunities as well as the risks. I am convinced that your discussions at the Stockholm Internet Forum will help disseminating many smart solutions.

I wish you many fruitful sessions and I am looking forward to studying the outcome of your deliberations.

Thank you.