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Access to new technologies: a right that violates other rights?

Human rights. Information and communication technologies generate new rights but their current industrial development is associated with wars, extreme inequalities and human and environmental exploitation.

The simple fact of having a smartphone has unknown consequences for users. Not only with regard to their personal data protection but also the conflicts that flow from obtaining the basic materials for manufacturing them.

Technological advances have become a big challenge on a social and environmental level. In the last 20 years there has been a scientific and technological revolution of great significance. New technologies and scientific development have become a symbol of our culture.

These advances could be tools for strengthening democracy and fighting against inequalities. But they also pose risks and potential threats to citizens and human rights.

 

3G technologies and human rights

The development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) could lead to the violation of fundamental rights. The Universal Declaration of Emerging Human Rights (UDEHR), approved in Monterrey in 2007, update some rights that merit revising and updating the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

One of them refers to the “right to science, technology and scientific knowledge, which guarantees access to scientific, technological and humanistic knowledge and to benefit from its results.” (Art. 8.1)

This declaration also refers to the right to communication, which recognises “the right of all people and every community to communicate with each other by any means they choose. To that end, every person has the right to access and use information and communication technologies, especially the internet:” (Art. 5.8)

However, the development of ICTs could also lead to the violation of other fundamental rights, for example:  the right to life, liberty and security of person in the UDHR; or the right to life security, the right to personal integrity, the right to health, the right to peace and the right to live on the planet and in the environment in the UDEHR.

The Association for Progressive Communications (ACP), which works for some ICTs based on social transformation values (social justice, environmental sustainability, political participation, women’s rights, etc.), drew up the Internet Rights Charter in 2002. Taking various UDHR rights as a reference, the charter is organised around a number of principles, such as internet access for all, freedom of expression and association, access to knowledge, the right to free and open source software, to privacy, to a multilateral, democratic internet and to data protection.

In that regard the APC says: “Easy, rapid and affordable access to the internet can help to create more egalitarian societies. (···) But it should not be taken for granted that technological innovation generates an automatic benefit. Civil society organisations (SCOs), governments and regulators should be aware of the internet’s potential for reinforcing existing inequalities.”

In the report Effects of Information and Communication Technologies on Human Rights (Institute of Human Rights of Catalonia) Antonio Enrique Pérez Luño) writes:

“The assertive strategy of human rights is present today, in the society of new technologies, with unequivocally new features focused on issues such as the right to peace, the rights of consumers, the rights in the sphere of biotechnologies and genetic manipulation, the right to quality of life or to IT freedom. (···) Thus, third-generation rights and freedoms appear as a response to the phenomenon of the so-called “pollution of freedoms”, a term which some social theory sectors in the English-speaking world use to refer to the erosion and degradation of fundamental rights faced with certain NT abuses.”

The configuration of this “third generation” of human rights, which new technologies have helped to consolidate, creates a series of mutations:

-Interhuman relations: these have become planet-wide, but so has the potential for conflict. Consequently, the issue of peace has acquired enormous importance.

-Relations with the environment: the idea of unlimited exploitation of nature has given rise to ever-growing ecological concerns.

-Human beings’ relations with themselves: the advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology have given rise to attacks on rights and freedoms, such as those caused by biotechnology experiments.

 

Impact of extracting materials and managing waste

If ICTs are capable of violating personal data privacy, the raw materials necessary for making them are the causes of very serious human rights’ violations. Extracting minerals and treating the waste they produce, so necessary for the electronic devices that make our lives easy, leads to large-scale humanitarian conflicts.

Coltan, one of the materials used in their manufacture, is mainly found in one of Africa’s most unstable countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). At the heart of Africa, it is ranked 176 out of 189 countries in the UN Human Development Index. It is one of the countries with the most potential in terms of mineral wealth, more specifically coltan, of which it has 80% of Africa’s total reserves.

This mineral is a combination of columbite and tantalite, and one of the most strategic in a global chain of high-tech products. The DRC’s best soils and mineral resources are in the outlying areas, for example, the provinces north and south of Kivu, which explains the spread of the most lethal conflicts.

Josep Mª Royo Aspa, a researcher at the Escola de Cultura de Pau, warns that coltan is “a very scarce mineral but a strategic one, because manufactured it is essential for making all today’s high-tech equipment: computers, mobiles, radars, etc.”.

Coltan is linked with the conflicts in Africa, “mainly with the most bloody one there is at present, which is in the Congo, for the illegal exploitation of the area’s natural resources. But it isn’t just coltan, it’s also gold, uranium, tin, precious woods, etc. That is contributing to the perpetuation of the war, because different armed groups are playing their part”.

This is what Celine Moyroud and John Katunga call the “Congolese paradox”, the fact of having a huge abundance of wealth in natural resources and, at the same time, 70% of the population live in absolute poverty, with unemployment at 85% (in the article “Coltan Exploration in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo” from 2002). This paradox is based on the fact that, despite the conflicts in this country being called “civil wars”, in reality they are conflicts based on obtaining mineral resources.

Those resources are increasingly becoming strategic international products, with intense competition to get access to them. The demand for coltan has become one of the driving forces behind war in the DRC and the presence of rival militias. It is one of the main resources looted by Congolese rebels and their allies in Rwanda and Uganda

The resources are so vast and easily accessible that, with little investment, they generate considerable amounts of wealth measured in billions of US dollars. The absence of a strong state apparatus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo clashes with the urgent need of international markets and multinational companies for high-tech development materials. Local companies have lined up with certain other African countries to gain access to these minerals in the DRC. Coltan sustains conflicts and generates new ones.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that the denunciation of this issue was one of the most important aspects dealt with at the “Mobile Social Congress”, held in Barcelona since 2017. The purpose of this gathering is to analyse the “impacts on the Global South of the activity linked with the supply chains and the life cycle of electronics and the alternatives to the monopolistic and exclusionist structures of telecommunications and technological sovereignty” and “on the modern slavery generated by the technological industry’s production and consumption model, from the mine to the landfill site”.

In the search for alternatives, the congress has also highlighted “the responses from the local social and solidarity economy to recycling and the reuse of electronic products.”

Content produced by the Human Rights Resources Centre

Photograph taken from the report “República Democrática del Congo: Balance de 20 Años de Guerra” (Escola de cultura de Pau, 2016)

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