Human Rights in the Digital Age: Challenging Issues on the UN Agenda

UN Monitor 14

The potential and challenges of the digital economy are emerging steadily on the UN agenda. The UN General Assembly’s Committee on Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Issues (Third Committee) closed its 74th session in November 2019 adopting over 60 resolutions on a wide range of subjects, only one of which (A/C.3/74/L.11) addressed digital technologies.

The Committee heard presentations from a variety of Independent Experts and Special Rapporteurs, two of whom addressed in their reports the human rights implications of emerging digital technologies. The Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Phillip Alston, focused his report on the digital welfare state. The Special Rapporteur on the Protection of the Right to Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, addressed online hate speech. They both pointed to the fact that, despite their potential benefits, digital technologies come with considerable risks for entrenching inequalities or undermining rights. Together the reports also offer a cry for help from the human rights and UN treaty-body system, a system that is struggling amid funding crises despite its vital role in cross-cutting and transformative policy recommendations.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet echoed these concerns at a Third Committee side event on Human Rights in the Digital Age: “The digital revolution is a major global human rights issue. Its unquestionable benefits do not cancel out its unmistakable risks.”