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Rights under threat from emerging tech

A key challenge facing human rights globally today is the advent of emerging technologies that mutate rapidly and potentially beyond human control. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has thus singled out for special study during the next couple of years four areas of concern: autonomous weaponry, neurotechnology, cyberbullying, and green technology (inevitably linked with climate change). What are the prospects for enjoying the fruits of such technologies and pre-empting their negative implications?

Classically, human rights norms tend to deal with the issue of equality and non-discrimination to prevent persons from being sidelined by prejudices, irrespective of their origins. They might not offer adequate details to cover safety issues which new technology raises. The latter thus calls upon the human rights community to connect well with other stakeholders, such as scientists, ethicists, and a broad range of civil society and other groups. The needed position can thus be termed the “human rights plus” approach.

Aptly this addresses the issue of autonomous weaponry, such as drones and other military machinery that can be programmed to kill and maim in a self-automated manner. Currently, in the war in Ukraine, a menacing example is how “electromagnetic pulse weapons” detonated above ground might be used to incapacitate computer systems and short-circuit electricity, perhaps triggering their own targeting. Internationally, there are two strands of development which seek to eliminate the most pernicious of these weapons. A rather old track is to expand the 1980 Convention on Prohibition or Restrictions on The Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

That treaty has various additional agreements attached to it in the form of protocols so that ratifying states can choose which protocols they wish to abide by. The latter includes regulation or prohibition of various mines/booby traps, incendiary weapons, laser weapons and explosive remnants of war. However, a limited number of nations in the Asian region are parties to the convention; for example, Thailand is a non-party.

In October of this year, scores of countries in the UN General Assembly agreed on the need for negotiations to explore a new international agreement which can address, more specifically, the issue of autonomous weapons. In the meantime, in other UN circles, there has already been a call for a moratorium on the use of such weaponry.

In regard to neurotechnology, there is an increasing interface between technology and the human neural system, and its impact needs to be well studied. Do our mobile phones affect our neural and cerebral systems if they are overused? There is the added puzzle that very small-scale technology (nanotechnology) in the form of minute chips or the like, might progressively be inserted into the human body. This could help to address some medical issues, such as Parkinson’s disease, but it might also affect mental integrity and cognitive freedom. Some people might even wish to claim neural augmentation, leading to the creation of a superhuman or uber-race.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently issued various regulations on this matter, calling for responsible innovation, safety assessments, oversight, protection of brain data, and promotion of “stewardship” so that this generation must adopt safeguards for the benefit of vulnerable groups and future generations. However, a global agreement is still lacking on the issue.

On another front, the issue of cyberbullying is closely linked with freedom of expression and other rights, such as privacy. There is an intermix of hate speech, misinformation and disinformation. The tendency of some countries of this region is to call for more laws to counter these elements, but they might also result in further constraints on civic and political space. The public should be aware since large parts of this region are non-democratic, and there are forces who are all too willing to limit the exercise of political rights and freedoms.

The initial entry point should thus be liberal and inclusive education with empathy so as to avoid bullying from a young age. This can be supplemented by peer advocacy of peaceful dialogue and behaviour, such as through counter-speech to protect those who are bullied. There can also be contractual obligations between users and digital platforms allowing moderation of content on the internet, such as shunning negative comments based on gender-related biases and homophobia. Today, that industry also has tools of self-regulation whereby it commits to overcoming hate messages, with an oversight board to rectify the situation where too many messages are screened out or taken down, or conversely where some of the inflammatory messages should be offloaded. However, those measures need to bear in mind international human rights standards, which stipulate that limits on freedom of expression must not be arbitrary and that they should be necessary and proportionate to the risks or harm.

Finally, on the issue of green technology, in addition to decarbonisation, a key area of concern is in relation to alternative, renewable energy, especially the relationship with electric cars, solar and wind power. It is increasingly recognised that this type of energy needs to be well-assessed to pre-empt environmental harm. Metals such as lithium used to make batteries also have their ecological cost related to the extraction process, such as through mining. Given that much of the exploration and exploitation will depend on the business sector, there is an inherent nexus with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles call upon the private sector to abide by human rights due diligence and undertake periodic impact assessments so as to prevent and mitigate damage, in addition to provisioning with the state authorities to offer adequate remedies.

Ultimately, even though the human rights context surrounding these emerging technologies is in a state of flux, there are some precepts of great relevance. Human rights apply online and offline. There are universal standards encompassing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in their totality, which must be respected. Please take a precautionary approach and “do no harm”. Humans must be in control and remain accountable.

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN as UN Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert and member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on human rights. (This article is derived from his recent speech at the conference on Emerging Technologies and Human Rights, hosted by the ASEAN University Network and organized by Mahidol University).

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