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Saturday, 10 December 2011

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Social media and human rights:

Opportunities for reshaping democratic engagement

Mahinda Samarasinghe -Minister of Plantation Industries and Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights

On December 10, the world celebrates the 63rd Anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This critical document born out of the international post-World War II determination to establish a new world order that would not see a repetition of the horrors of that experience, set a global standard and basis for what we now regard as international human rights law.

Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe

Inspired by this document, specific international treaties and regional instruments came into being, expanded and gave life to the principles and norms of the seminal Declaration. This year, the theme of the celebration is Social Media and Human Rights. Given the technological developments and the spread of internet and mobile technologies, this becomes a key consideration for people and governments the world over. Moreover, given the reported role played by a range of social media in democratic upheavals and protest in several jurisdictions, we must all pay due regard to the possibilities, potential and usefulness of this new form of interaction. We must also be aware of the undoubted risks and dangers and the unintended negative consequences of this form of interaction.

Social media

Social media has exploded and touches many lives across most continents. Connecting people using a myriad of applications across varied platforms, the exponential growth of this media, heralds in a new age of participatory engagement which can truly be said to be the advent of Web 2.0. The participatory nature of this development using more user input and content and interactivity as opposed to one way information flows, is both exciting and challenging.

From the perspective of democratic government and human rights, social media holds out much promise. The traditional view of government in a democracy is that people have the right to vote at regular, genuinely competitive elections, to run for elected office and to access public office and services. The applicable human rights standard is Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which finds its origin in Article 21 of the UDHR. Article 25 posits that -

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 (relating to non-discrimination)and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his (or her) country.

What is important in this context is the phrase 'To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly'. The Human Rights Committee, the treaty-based body that is established by and oversees the implementation of the Covenant, in its general comments on the interpretation and implementation of Article 25, explains that participation is not mere passive participation during the electoral process and then a hiatus for a fixed period while those elected are left to themselves to govern. Though direct, democratic systems such as that of the Athenian State now would be unwieldy.

The advent of the World Wide Web and other technologies makes it more possible to follow your government, to discuss matters of public importance and perhaps most importantly, make your views known either individually or collectively. More enlightened governments now offer web-based opportunities for online consultation with their citizens in making and refining policy. This is the revolutionary quality of the web which offers more real hope for truly informed citizens to make a contribution to matters that directly concerns their lives and those of fellow citizens. The previously more limited platform of mobile technology and communication is now seeing exponential growth and is developing into an equally effective mode of communication. Interactivity and collective inter-communication through this medium is gaining ground through much greater penetration of the market. All of this holds out limitless potential for citizen participation and engagement.

Constructive criticism

Of course there are directly allied rights to Article 25 which are necessary in order to make participation in public affairs a reality. The freedom to access information and the rights to form and express opinion as well as the right to peacefully assemble in political or other groupings must be guaranteed. If not, the 'conversation' becomes ill-informed, bound to misdirection or manipulation and becomes the very antithesis of informed and reasoned argument and democratic discourse. It is said that these exchanges in the virtual world tend towards the survival of the loudest and most opinionated of views. It is not the most sober, well-thought out and the best considered ideas that necessarily hold sway.

Thus in order to guarantee the rights to participation, governments must themselves be more open, welcoming of and sensitive to constructive criticism and be willing to listen. It must also put in place the infrastructure necessary to grant easy access to information resources and must be open about informing and communicating with its citizenry. The citizens themselves must be educated and empowered to take part in this discourse in an enlightened and responsible manner. This is why our government’s efforts to take these technologies to the previously underserviced and underserved periphery and to promote e-literacy can have important positive implications for democracy and human rights promotion and protection.

The recent advent of the mass movements known as the so-called 'Facebook Revolutions' that happened in West Asia and North Africa during the 'Arab Spring' and the 'Occupy' movements were mass mobilizations which owed some of their force and momentum to social media and mobile communications. It demonstrated that gatherings in the virtual world can be transformed into mass meetings and protests in the real world. Indeed some have now developed web-based services that facilitate these encounters in actuality. While the eventual success of these movements cannot be judged in such a short time frame, in some cases the objective – to remedy perceived political repression or to protest economic and social inequity and inequality – have sometimes resulted in situations in which the human rights of fellow citizens are further prejudiced.

Democratic rights

Social media, therefore, like all technology, can be used for positive gains and also less useful purposes. As I have said the discourse must be reasoned, factual, independent of external influence and dispassionate to a degree. Democratic rights do not extend to creating anarchy due to some distaste for the current social, economic or political structure or system.

The interesting facet of these communications is that they are not regulated. Internet content regulation or censorship is extremely difficult to impose and police because of the very architecture of the system. Like all censorship it must only be used in the most extreme cases to prevent great social harm. In multi-cultural societies such as ours, careful consideration must be paid to those exacerbating tensions between constituent communities of society.

Propaganda campaign

Some countries use old sedition laws to punish persons who could, through ill-considered or malicious communication, cause ill-will at the least or ethnic conflagrations at the worst. Distribution of morally harmful content, incitement to violence, defamation and character assassination – often with no accountability – are all dangers that our legal systems must cope with.

The abuse of the right to personal privacy and protection of personal data must also receive our due attention.

Conversely, social media can be used creatively to share common understanding and build bridges between communities.

To be continued

 

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