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Back to the Future – Why a Human Rights-Focused Foreign Policy must keep up with Technology

Article by Helen Goodman MP

October 9, 2019

Back to the Future – Why a Human Rights-Focused Foreign Policy must keep up with Technology

 “Technology is, of course, a double edged sword. Fire can cook our food but also burn us.”

  • Jason Silva, the Venezuelan-American filmmaker and public speaker

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The values and guiding principles underpinning this declaration may not have changed in 70 years, but the threats to human rights have. For those of us who still believe in the sanctity of human rights, we have to adapt to these threats.

One such threat is technology. Technology and human rights have always been intricately intertwined. From the mastering of civilian bugging in the 1970s and 80s, to the mass expansion of CCTV in the 1990s and early 2000s, to contemporary concerns over data mining and privacy rights we see today; technology has carved open an entire new dimension to human rights concerns in the past 30 years or so.

However, we are only really scratching the surface of the deepening complexities and growing capabilities of modern technology, and the seismic implications for human rights are only just becoming clear.

A case in point is the plight of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province, West China. The Uighurs are an ethnic Turkic peoples originating from East and Central Asia who form the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang, numbering approximately 11 million. Unlike the Han Chinese – who constitute the predominant ethnic group in mainland China – the Uighur population is primarily Muslim and culturally distinct from the rest of China’s population.

Since at least 1949, the Uighur community has been subject to systematic discrimination by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However in the past four years, following a series of riots and sporadic violent attacks by Uighur Islamist and separatist groups, state persecution of the Uighurs and other ethnic Turkic groups has intensified – according to Human Rights Watch – to ‘a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution’.[1] The purported reason for this intensification is the ‘de-extremification’ of the region.

This repression has involved the mass surveillance of the Uighur population and the reported internment of over one million Uighurs in ‘re-education camps’.[2] Where, according to detailed testimonies from former inmates, detainees are forced to undergo psychological indoctrination programmes designed to erase Uighur cultural and religious identity and foster loyalty to the Chinese state – including memorising CCP propaganda, giving thanks to President Xi Jinping and learning Mandarin.[3]

State-of-the-art technology has been fundamental to the disturbing effectiveness of this state repression. Facial-recognition surveillance technology capable of identifying individuals by their ethnicity, supplied by surveillance giants Hikvision and Dahua, has been embedded ubiquitously across Xinjiang (and, incidentally, Tibet), including in gas stations and in hundreds of mosques. The Chinese government is also forcing Uighurs to download an app that monitors the content on their smart phones and searches for ‘illegal’ images,[4] and according to Human Rights Watch, is using ‘Wi-Fi sniffers’ that collect the unique identifying addresses of computers, smartphones, and other networked devices.[5]

The data obtained from such ‘sensors’ is being fed into a predictive policing program called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which has been fully implemented for the first time in Xinjiang.[6] This platform uses Big Data to analyse the movements and activities of the Uighur population and make predictive judgements on the threat level of individuals. Often after evaluation of IJOP data, individuals are detained and sent straight to re-education centres.[7]

In short, technology has augmented a reality whereby the Chinese state has near Orwellian levels of omniscience and control over certain ethnic minorities. In Xinjiang, we are seeing just how long a shadow technology can cast over human rights.

It is not all bad news however. Technology also has enormous potential to defend human rights.

As the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) surmises, ‘Digital technologies are opening up numerous new possibilities to identify, analyse and remedy human rights risks.’[8] They identify a number of areas where technology is being harnessed to safeguard human rights. Data and information collection, for instance, has enormous potential. Satellites, drones, balloons and smart sensors like radio-frequency identification (RFID) can monitor and analyse land, ecosystems, movement of materials and product commodity chains to determine whether people’s land property rights are being violated, and whether products come from verified suppliers.[9] Apps and chatbots can also be employed to give workers a voice to express their concerns and report human rights abuses either directly to their own employers, to government authorities or to third parties.

An innovative best practice example of this is Global Fishing Watch (GFW). GFW is using data obtained from satellite technologies and cloud computing to produce immense datasets that identify fishing patterns and produce highly detailed visual maps and infographics that are shared online. This information equips authorities and stakeholders to tackle human rights abuses in the fishing industry, such as spotting vessels that have been at sea for extended periods of time and are therefore denying their crew a break from work and violating their working rights.

Furthermore, rather than being used for predictive policing and mass violations of privacy, the ‘Big Data’ generated by such technologies can feed into the business decision-making procedures and activities of private companies; enhancing the capacity of transnational corporations to identify and respond to human rights issues in their operations and commodity chains and make more human rights-centred decisions.[10]  

Again, several examples are emerging of such practice. Once such example is Laborlink – a mobile app that allows factory workers to report workplace abuses and provide general feedback – either identified or anonymously.[11] Over one million workers in 16 countries have so far utilised the app, resulting in a vast improvement in workplace rights. For example in Bangladesh, through the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, Laborlink partnered with ELEVATE to build a first-of-its-kind technology-driven helpline that receives calls on over 500 issues a month, including complaints about wages and benefits and fire dangers inside and outside factories.[12]

A similar app, WorkIt, has been instrumental in securing significant victories for Walmart workers in the United States – including substantially better corporate-wide pay and leave policies – through a campaign orchestrated by United for Respect.[13]

Consequently, as well as posing a threat to human rights, technology provides a considerable arsenal that concerned governments, corporations and NGOs can – and must – utilise. However we cannot just fight fire with fire. Policy and legislation must also keep up with the technological dimension of human rights. Governments and legislators must therefore review the options available to them to abate human rights abuses made possible by technology. But just what options are available? The answer is several.

An emerging legal vehicle that will have a crucial role to play is the Magnitsky powers. Leading for the Labour Party, I managed to secure the inclusion of Magnitsky clauses in the UK Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act in Spring 2018 Magnitsky legislation grants government ministers the power to issue sanctions and other punitive measures against individuals or entities engaging in human rights abuses. Crucially, this includes private companies.

On formally leaving the European Union, the UK will be able to autonomously apply sanctions using the Magnitsky clause more easily[14], and will therefore possess a much needed lever with which to target companies selling technologies being used to violate human rights for entering into contracts with the perpetrators. Like, for example, Hikvision – a move that is already being considered by the United States owing to their operations in Xinjiang. And Hikvision is just the tip of the iceberg. 

A second lever available to states is export controls – a policy initiative encouraged by Human Rights Watch in the context of the Uighur crisis.[15] Identifying appropriate export control mechanisms to deny human rights abusing states from gaining access to the technology being used to violate basic rights is critical, and Labour has committed to strengthening export controls as part of our human rights-focussed foreign policy. By taking this simple step, concerned onlookers will stop unwittingly equipping the very human rights abusers they are condemning.  

Thirdly, governments must engage with the technology sector. Technology companies need to be made aware of the human rights risk that their business operations can and do contribute to, and assurances must be sought that they will not enter into contracts with government authorities or any other organisation that is committing gross human rights abuses. If necessary, new regulations should be introduced to facilitate this. A bad reputation is bad for business, so encouraging leading tech sector giants to recalibrate their business models and tender policies in line with human rights realities could prove an effective tool in mitigating the detrimental impact technology can have on human rights, and hopefully others will follow their example.

Fourthly, governments’ need to cooperate to introduce a clear international legal framework for internet governance. Currently the free for all resembles the 16th Century law of the sea as pirates abound – there are no shared controls on terrorism, child protection, intellectual property or tax and as more and more economic activity moves to the web more and more human activity takes place in an anarchic value free vacuum. As long as such a gap exists in the legal architecture, human rights abusers using the web to commit their crimes will continue to find dark corners to hide in.

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the inexorable advance of technology will continue apace. We are entering the era of 5G (as we know all too well from the Huawei issue), artificial intelligence and potentially even commercial flights into space. If we are to realise the grand and noble vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expounded 70 years ago democratic governments, civil society, human rights activists and other entities engaged in the global struggle for human rights must adapt to the new reality technology is presenting us. We must therefore recognise and respond to the deeply disturbing implications for human rights posed by technology, but also harness its enormous potential to take the fight to the worst perpetrators.

Failure to do either may render the era since the Universal  Declaration of Human Rights a mere footnote in history, rather than a blueprint of a future reality for the millions being oppressed in the present.

Helen Goodman MP is a Shadow Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs


[1] Human Rights Watch, Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims (Human Rights Watch, 2018), https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/09/eradicating-ideological-viruses/chinas-campaign-repression-against-xinjiangs

[2] Adrian Zenz, New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang China Brief, vol. 18, issue 10, May 15, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/evidence-for-chinas-political-re-education-campaign-in-xinjiang (accessed 2019)

[3] Malik, ‘Muslim inmates in China detention camp forced to eat pork, drink alcohol and physically tortured as some commit suicide’

[4] Adam Lynch, App targeting Uighur population censors content, lacks basic security, Open Tech, August 2018, https://www.opentech.fund/news/app-targeting-uyghur-population-censors-content-lacks-basic-security/

[5] Human Rights Watch, China: Big Data Fuels Crackdown in Minority Region, February 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/26/china-big-data-fuels-crackdown-minority-region

[6] Ibid (footnote 5)

[7] Ibid (footnote 5)

[8] Davide Fiedler, Is technology a game-changer for human rights in corporate value chains?, WBCSD, November 2018, https://www.wbcsd.org/Overview/Panorama/Articles/Is-technology-a-game-changer-for-human-rights-in-corporate-value-chains

[9] Ibid (footnote 8)

[10] Ibid (footnote 8)

[11] Ibid (footnote 8)

[12] Good World Solutions, https://goodworldsolutions.org/

[13] Teke Wiggin, Labour Organizers Look To Apps To Reach Wider Audiences, Huffington Post, July 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/labor-organizers-apps-audiences_us_5b47a609e4b022fdcc577a47?ri18n=true

[14] According to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee the FCO has been equivocating on the extent to which sanctions under the 2018 Act can be applied whilst the UK is still a member of the EU, particularly in relation to elements related to trade. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have their own Magnitsky legislation whilst being members of the EU https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/1703/170305.htm

[15] https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/china0918_web2.pdf

Footnotes
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