Human Rights and the Internet

“The 20th century will be known both for its commitment to human rights and for the ongoing struggle to ensure that these rights are respected. At the same time, it will also be remembered for the massive changes enabled by new information and communications technology. These two developments have transformed the lives of people, including those who have previously been ignored by societies or disinherited of their rights. This is an area in which new media and the Internet have played an extremely important role.” (Abid Hussain, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression 1999, X).

I have already discussed the effect of information and communication technologies on the protection of human rights in the section about the presence technologies. Here I will focus on the effect of Internet for Human Rights Organizations. The act of witnessing a violation and being able to report it, so that other people can also protest is crucial for the struggle for the defence of human rights.

When discussing the positive implications of the Internet for Human Rights, the first stories that will be told are the stories about how the Internet has improved the practices of Non Governmental Human Rights Organizations. Internet has made it possible to escape from oppressive witnessing practices like censorship and surveillance by dictatorial regimes. In a survey conducted by Amnesty International among Human Rights Organizations in Latin America it states that “communications technology such as email is used daily; the use of networks has produced a way to save financial resources and enhance communication; the Internet has amplified work capabilities beyond former limits, and the Internet has enhanced the profile of their NGO internationally and locally.” (Pacheco 2000, 111).

The importance of the early days of the Internet is that it could circumvent censorship and distribute witness reports as was never possible before. Because of this it became a powerful tool for liberation movements such as the ANC in South Africa. Designed as a network in which one place cannot control the entirety, “it has allowed indigenous human rights groups, in the very countries where the worst violations are happening, to quietly and quickly alert the world to violations in their territory. If you believe that real change has to begin from within, and cannot be imposed from without, you have to love what the Internet has spawned.” (Sharpe 2000, 44). The experience of being able to escape the censorship of dictatorial regimes, the experience of being able to maintain communication with the outside world, while war is going on as in former Yugoslavia, the experience that people in the Diaspora are able to find each other and the experience of being able to find information about missing persons via a site like, has had a great deal of impact. The added value of information and communication technology for Human Rights Organizations is beyond doubt today.

Nevertheless, the medium is evolving and less positive implications of the Internet have surfaced as well. Certain nation states limit access and exchange by controlling infrastructures. If human rights organizations can get around censorship and surveillance, they now have to find attention on an Internet that produces huge amounts of information in little time. “One issue that Internet evangelists seem to miss is that increasing speed of transmission and quantity is in no sense synonymous with pertinence. Indeed the increase in usage of the Internet can paradoxically constitute an obstacle to communication in the larger sense of the word. When there were more difficulties in communicating, in the days of the telex and the telegram, organizations were forced to stick to essentials, complete and to the point, repetition was avoided and additional information weeded out.” (Sottas and Schonveld 2000, 79). Apparently, to be able to hear and understand a certain witness report, people need focused attention and the overflow of information due to the information and communication technologies diffuses attention as well.

When fighting for the Human Rights of certain individuals through global campaigns, the global attention that can be triggered via Internet can also be counterproductive. This was the case in Nigeria where Ken Saro–Wiwa, an environmental activist, was sentenced to death instead of sent to jail as a result of the global attention that his trial triggered, in which the use of the Internet played a crucial role (Sharpe 2000).
And even though Internet can have a great deal of impact, this impact may not be good enough to change certain situations. “For the Zapatistas, the Internet has helped to sustain their insurgency for six years, by keeping national and international observers informed of the oppression and action. On the other hand, six years have passed without there being substantial tangible improvements in the Zapatistas’ security and well–being. ‘The crisis in Chiapas’ will not be solved in cyberspace — clearly, more needs to be done.” (Hick & Teplitsky 2000, 63).

Internet makes it possible to enlist many people’s attention to witness and testify about a situation in which violations of human dignity occur. Also, the Internet makes it possible to be witnessed less and to get around restrictions like censorship and surveillance. For Human Rights organizations, which have benefited from this aspect of the Internet, we see that mediated witnessed presence via the Internet can function like a catalyst: both for good and for bad. The impact of witness reports has become less due to the flood of information that most people are confronted with.