Human Rights 2.0: What’s in a Name?

A thousand thanks to Sanjana at ICT4Peace for his kind recommendation of my blog, I am truly grateful! Thank you Sanjana!

Sanjana also took the time to reflect on my recent blog entry entitled Human Rights 2.0 and raised some important questions and concerns. Indeed, Sanjana has a wealth of practical experience in securing fundamental rights of peoples and communities at risk with the use of technology. I very much value his insights and checks on reality, which our ICT working group at the OCHA 5+ Symposium greatly benefited from.

Sanjana asks for a definition of what I mean by Human Rights 2.0:

Perhaps the term requires a more precise definition that I encourage Patrick to provide. What would Human Rights 1.0 for example be in contradistinction to Human Rights 2.0? And what are the markers that one has upgraded to Human Rights 2.0? And say for example that initiatives similar to Eyes on Darfur are able to prevent wide-scale massacres, but are powerless to prevent the arbitrary violence against citizens by repressive governments or the continued violation of language rights (with significant implications on the larger human rights context). Would that still be Human Rights 2.0?

And concludes,

For me, buzzwords du jour are less important than the meaningful empowerment of those whose lives are on the line when it comes to HR protection and who don’t have time to become experts in ICT. That’s our job. We all get a high when we see HR activists use our technology – they simply trust the system to deliver results they could not have otherwise achieved, in a manner and media of their own choosing and design. The underlying technology is, for them, invisible and unimportant. What matters is not Human Rights 2.0, but about being as much of a pain in the arse as possible to those who violate human rights, by recording for posterity and with as much detail as possible, crimes against humanity and human decency.

I fully agree with Sanjana’s observations–indeed, who would not? Yes, Human Rights 2.0 is certainly a buzzword and I must confess (with head bowed in shame) that I enjoy the “creative writing” and entertaining analogies that Thomas Friedman is known for, e.g., “The Lexus and the Olive Tree“. That doesn’t mean I agree with most of his arguments.

In any case, yes, buzzwords are less important than the meaningful empowerment of those whose lives are on the line. Again, I hope that goes for all of us committed to civilian protection and human rights. Moreover, I fully share Sanjana’s conviction that what matters is to be as much of a pain in the backside to those who violate human rights as possible. Indeed, this is exactly how I answer questions from friends and colleagues regarding the topic of my dissertation: “Basically, I’m interested in how to [annoy] repressive regimes as much as possible using ICTs.”

So defining Human Rights 2.0 may really be more of an academic or theoretical exercise than one might care for. The purpose of my blog entry was simply to showcase a few hands-on projects that seek to employ technologies in innovative and practical ways. So while I would rather converse about the merits and challenges of those projects than seek a definition that meets the larger audience’s approval, here is my attempt nevertheless (with the understanding that I agree with all the qualifications articulated by Sanjana in his response).

My understanding of Web 2.0 is that it is a Social Web, and by that I mean a Read/Write Web, where user-generated content and peer-to-peer communication begins to eclipse traditional sources of information, ownership and communication architectures. (To this end, I’m a big fan of Yochai Benkler and his work on “The Wealth of Networks“). My use of Human Rights 2.0 is founded on the concept of people-centered human rights monitoring and protection. This approach is necessarily tied to my background in conflict early warning/response as well as my interest in nonviolent resistance and the potential of iRevolutions. To this end, I offer the following definition inspired from disaster early warning/response:

The objective of Human Rights 2.0 is to use ICTs to empower individuals and communities threatened by violence to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury and loss of life.

The next step, as I recommended to AI during my conversations, is to provide local communities with access to the information depicted in very high resolution satellite imagery.

My use of the term Human Rights 2.0 highlights the potential contribution that new means/access to technologies can bring to the field of human rights, and does not imply a significant and irreversible process, let alone a Hegelian dialectic. Web 2.0 technology and related ICTs are not available or widespread in many countries around the world. At least this has been my experience while working in Morocco, the Western Sahara, Tunisia, the Gambia, Congro-Brazzaville, the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and most recently in Timor-Leste.

This partly explains my frustration with Ivory Tower thinking, which has gotten me to vent on more occasions (here and here) than I’d like to recall.

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “Human Rights 2.0: What’s in a Name?

  1. Thanks a lot Patrick – we share a great deal and only seem to differ on our epithets for the human posterior…

    What you outline here as your understanding of and approach to HR using ICT is as I suspected, but I wanted to hear it from you to be sure!

    Complementing and clarifying my original post, I believe that HR activists also have to evolve just as the technology around them evolves. It is no longer possible to go with what one believes / knows is the “Truth” and expect the International Community to buy into it. Governments of the day are as media savvy as many NGOs and their propaganda as compelling to many audiences.

    The older generation of HR activists – and I use the word deliberately – are precisely that. They are activists, not necessarily strategists for HR protection or information management specialists. As I noted in private correspondence to Tom Langley in an on-going conversation on my post in response to his – – “the mindset of (traditional) HR activist that anecdotes actually constitute the best information possible on HR violations is really a shift in a mindset that will take some doing to engender and sustain.” I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in identifying the spectrum of technology, some importantly available for little or no cost, that a new generation of HR activists will need to be familiar with if they are to step up to the increasing sophistication of HR violations. Not every country is Sudan – many more violations happen within buildings, virtually or in areas such as education, language, ethnicity and gender and other forms of discrimination. The technology you point to and I work with help all these issues, but it is imperative that those who use it understand the potential and pitfalls of such technologies.

    All fodder for an on-going discussion I am sure.



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