Human Rights and the SDGs: What the 2017 WSIS Forum Can Learn from UNHRC 35

As the 2017 WSIS Forum kicks off today at the ITU headquarters in Geneva, finding the answers to the questions it poses might be as easy as taking a short walk across town to the Palais des Nations.

The 2017 WSIS Forum WSIS Forum is a week-long, multi-stakeholder event in Geneva that brings together the global “information society”.   Each year, the Forum fosters discussion on the progress that’s been made towards fulfilling the commitments of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and the WSIS+10 review. With its pithy social media mantra, #ICTs4SDGs, the Forum will be hosting a series of workshops, policy sessions, and interactive events that explore how the WSIS community can harness information and communication technologies (ICTs) to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Just a few metres away, while the WSIS Forum is in full swing, the 35th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will also convene.   There the stage is set for a range of discussions regarding the protection and promotion of human rights on the Internet, including the roles and responsibilities of the ICT private sector, the gender digital divide, and to what degree Member States respect human rights online.

Sounds like perfect timing? We think so. But oddly enough, it seems like the consideration of human rights is largely absent from the “ICTs4SDGs” conversation at the WSIS Forum.

The WSIS+10 was convened in 2015 to evaluate how well the outcomes of the original WSIS process had been implemented by its stakeholders. In its conclusion, this WSIS review specifically called upon the information society to meaningfully engage with the international human rights framework, including the rights to free expression, free association, and privacy. And it’s clear why.

If the Internet is to truly facilitate economic and social development, then its users must have trust in the Internet as a free and open civic space.

Trust makes connectivity meaningful; if censorship, surveillance, and other restrictions to Internet freedom persist, people will turn away from accessing the Internet altogether. This context critically informs how we should be approaching the SDGs. In this way, stakeholder discussions on building resilient Internet infrastructure—one of the major SDGs tackled by the Forum—should focus not simply on expanding this infrastructure, but more so on how infrastructure is relevant to the protection and promotion of free expression, unimpeded access to information and media freedom, free association, and privacy.

The Forum will feature representatives from the public sector, private sector, civil society, and academia. All WSIS stakeholders can include human rights as part of the conversation on how to implement WISIS Action Lines in pursuit of the SDGs.   We want to outline  three areas of focus likely to be discussed at the  UNHRC 35 that serve as a basis for understanding how to do so:

  • A new report, The Gender Digital Divide from a Human Rights Perspective, by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. The gender digital divide is a major issue tackled by participants at the WSIS Forum every year. However, this divide cannot be bridged through infrastructural development alone: stakeholder responses must move beyond the “ICTs4SDGs” to holistically address structural gender inequality.    With a focus on ensuring human rights for women online, the OHCHR presents a series of recommendations for the public and private sectors that move beyond simply addressing ICT accessibility, and towards facilitating meaningful online participation – a pre-requisite for economic and social development.
  • A return to the HRC Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet. As the UNHRC assesses the state of human rights on the Internet following the adoption of this 2016 Resolution, both public and private sector stakeholders within the WSIS community should look to its provisions as a comprehensive framework for building trust in the Internet as a civic space and for building confidence in the use of ICTs, as envisioned in the outcome of the WSIS+10 review.

Over the course of the WSIS Forum, ARTICLE 19 will be discussing how its community should apply human rights considerations, and we will  be focusing in particular on Sustainable Development Goal 9 and the pursuit to build resilient infrastructure. We will  be hosting a thematic workshop on human rights, infrastructure, and Internet governance on Monday.   And later in the week, we will be speaking during the High-Level Policy Session on freedom of expression, inclusiveness, and infrastructural access. If you are interested in following any of the events at the WSIS Forum, you can join in the discussion by participating remotely.