ICTs and Human Rights Practice

Change log
McPherson, Ella 

The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is creating a wealth of new opportunities as well as a variety of new risks for human rights practice. Given the pace of innovation in the development and use of ICTs, our understanding of their impact on human rights lags. This report provides a crucial and in depth look at ICT initiatives and trends across the key human rights practices of prevention, fact-finding, and advocacy, identifying both risks and opportunities. In prevention, ICTs can be harnessed to protect human rights defenders, to prevent violations in police-civilian interactions, and in data-driven early warning systems and communication-based conflict prevention. That said, ICTs also create new security risks for human rights defenders and can violate the right to privacy. In fact-finding, ICTs afford the spontaneous and solicited participation of civilian witnesses in the production of human rights evidence. Of course, a greater volume and variety of information from unknown and untrained sources creates problems of misinformation and verification, which technology only goes so far to mitigate. In advocacy, ICTs provide new channels for quickly and visibly mobilizing publics, for directly engaging with advocacy targets, and for spreading awareness of human rights. That said, the effects of these new advocacy channels are unclear, and they may imperil categories of human rights and the reputations of human rights organizations.

The report also considers how digital divides and the political economy of ICTs influence the nature, extent, and distribution of these opportunities and risks. In doing so, it outlines a research framework for understanding ICTs and human rights practice to underpin academics’ and practitioners’ assessment, development, and deployment of ICTs for and in the spirit of human rights.

An earlier version of this report, prepared for an expert meeting ahead of the June 2015 session of the UN Human Rights Council, informed the thematic report on ICTs and the right to life presented at that session by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. As such, the projects profiled represent a snapshot of that timeframe; this report is therefore accompanied by a regularly updated, student-run Tumblr blog, ictandhr.tumblr.com, which welcomes submissions on new initiatives.


Since 2011, CGHR has collaborated with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, providing research support to his mandate. In 2012, a team of researchers produced a ‘Research Pack’ on the threats to the right to life of journalists for an Expert Meeting held in Cambridge, ultimately contributing to the Special Rapporteur’s report that year to the Human Rights Council. In 2013, work began on a broader collaboration studying violations of the right to life across the African continent, culminating in a report, ‘Unlawful Killings in Africa,’ to guide the Special Rapporteur’s future activity. In 2014, a CGHR research team began a study of how the use of information and communication technologies affects the right to life, resulting in this report and the ICTs and Human Rights blog. This report was originally a discussion document prepared by CGHR Research Associate Dr Ella McPherson in collaboration with the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and ahead of a meeting of experts held in Cambridge in February 2015. The discussion document, as well as the discussion at the expert meeting, contributed to the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report on the use of information and communications technologies to secure

ICTS, human rights, digital technologies, human rights pratice, human rights fact-finding, human rights advocay
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