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Tahrir Square, February 9, 2011. Photo source.

This article was co-authored with Jessica Wyndham, a human rights lawyer.

As we mark Human Rights Day 2011 on December 10, it is impossible to ignore a clear theme that has emerged during the year — the use, misuse and abuse of technology in support and in violation of human rights. While innovative means exist to apply technology to promote human rights, there are serious questions about the legitimate role of government in restricting access to some technological advances as well as the obligation to prevent the development and/or misuse of potentially repressive technologies. This is problematic when it comes to dual use technologies, such as those used in the military. Mobile devices that have played a key role in freedom of speech, as “friend,” through Twitter and Facebook can also be used by authorities, as “foe,” to locate the caller to arrest or intimidate them. Preventing “misuse” and supporting regulation of technologies is appropriate, but preventing technology “development” is another matter.

When the members of the United Nations joined together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, a new world order was envisioned. Sovereign nations would no longer have the freedom to persecute their own citizens with impunity. Sovereignty meant responsibility, including the responsibility to realize the human rights of all persons as recognized in the Universal Declaration, including the rights to vote and to a fair trial, as well as the rights to education, to health and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

There is a tension in relying on governments to ensure the realization of human rights when human rights can imply limitations on government action and can form the basis for challenging government legitimacy. This tension was evident early this year when Egypt and Libya shut down the internet when social media and other tools of mass communication were used to fuel and facilitate a widespread protest movement. Control of potential and actual civil disturbances was also the justification used in San Francisco when the authorities temporarily shut down cell phone use in the BART system to hamper the organization of a civil protest and for the use of long-range acoustic devices in New York to disperse Occupy Wall Street protesters.

New technological developments and applications can facilitate the exercise of human rights by providing a means of sharing information widely through the Internet, by allowing the documentation of human rights abuses through geospatial technologies, or by strengthening healthcare services in remote parts of the world through the use of mobile health technologies, among other examples.

The events of this year, however, highlight some of the challenges posed by the development and application of technologies. Addressing these challenges will require an open dialogue on such questions as: are there legitimate limits that can be placed on the use of technological tools? If so, how do you define those limits and what recourse does the citizenry have if governments exceed these limits? What is the role of government in monitoring, preventing and mitigating the risks associated with the use of technologies, particularly dual-use technologies that may have a legitimate military function but which may be used against civilians?

As we mark Human Rights Day 2011, we must recommit ourselves to realizing the vision of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights who believed in the responsibility of sovereign governments to ensure the basic human rights of all peoples without discrimination or distinction.

This article was published on December 8, 2011 at The Huffington Post.

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