Digitalisation has the power to revolutionise human rights tracking for the best

Future World exhibition at the ArtScience Museum, in Singapore. (Credit: Unsplash/Robynne Hu)

The digital age comes with immense human rights challenges as the virtual world becomes fertile ground for abuses, but it also provides new technological tools for monitoring and protection, observe executive director Felix Kirchmeier and project coordinator Domenico Zipoli of the Geneva Academy's Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP), ahead of its 2022 annual conference.

Digitalisation affects the realisation and enjoyment of human rights, creating new openings for violations. As offline and online settings have started blurring, we see offline reprisals against online action, and online tracing and intrusion to our privacy affecting our actions offline. But digital tools can also offer new ways of protecting human rights.

This is why this year we decided to dedicate our Annual Conference of the Geneva Human Rights Platform on 18 October to the topic ON/OFF: Implications of Digital Connectivity on Human Rights. To discuss those challenges, but also to take stock of the immense opportunities digitisation brings to the human rights world, especially for tracking the implementation of human rights obligations on the ground.

Since 2021, the Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) has been conducting research to understand what is needed for  National Human Rights Systems (NHRS) to effectively do their job of coordinating and monitoring the implementation of recommendations from the global human rights system at the national level. With an increasing number of recommendations from the UN treaty bodies, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and special procedures, and the clock ticking to implement the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, their capacity to manage information becomes even more salient. 

One main challenge we identified in this regard is fragmentation of the global human rights system. From the outset, it makes tracking progress and collecting data an onerous task, which additionally has to compete for attention with other national priorities. Consequently, data collection often occurs at the last moment, only once reporting to the oversight mechanisms is overdue.

To find ways to counter this issue, we have been engaging with different actors who during the last decade have launched innovative digital human rights tracking tools and databases, some of which will be featured at an expert roundtable at our conference.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has for example developed the National Recommendations Tracking Database (NRTD), an online database which can help states implement the recommendations they have received from the UPR, special procedures and the treaty bodies. The tool clusters recommendations with the assignment of responsibilities to relevant ministries or other bodies, the monitoring of activities and the allocation of relevant budgets. In addition, it may also record national efforts vis-à-vis the 2030 Agenda and human rights implementation status in real time. 

Paraguay’s SIMORE PLUS (Spanish acronym for System for Monitoring Recommendations), developed by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in cooperation with the OHCHR, is an online system for monitoring both treaty body and UPR recommendations, linking them with SDG targets and making it possible for civil society to monitor the government’s progress in meeting its commitments, thus increasing transparency. SIMORE PLUS has been replicated in other Latin American countries and a specific version has been adapted to also cover recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (SIMORE INTERAMERICANO).

Similarly, digital development efforts by the Samoan National Mechanism for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up and New Zealand’s NHRI led to the establishment of IMPACT OSS (Integrated Management and Planning of Actions Open Source Software), a software created to assist states with coordinating and monitoring implementation of human rights and the SDGs, and to communicate progress to the public. It acts as a  tracking database of recommendations received that can be digitally filtered by keyword, convention, affected person, etc. It is primarily designed to help NMIRFs and NHRIs, but can also be used by civil society to hold governments accountable. 

The Geneva-based NGO Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems (HURIDOCS) launched in 2017 UWAZI (meaning “openness” in Swahili). The open-source database application is designed for human rights defenders to capture and organise information, including documents, evidence, cases and complaints. More recently, UWAZI started to leverage machine learning to make human rights information more accessible. To date, UWAZI has been used among other things for, preserving evidence related to an ongoing situation, managing complaints or cases for strategic litigation, and compiling libraries of law, jurisprudence, reports or academic works.

There is growing interest in digital human rights tracking tools and the lack of empirical evidence means there is still an emerging understanding of the best way to refine and evolve the tools which currently exist. That is why we need to explore these tools’ structure, functionality and common challenges, such as financial and technical sustainability, and in particular interoperability of those tools. 

This knowledge will inform future thinking at the national and global levels about the utility of digitalisation for a more systemic approach to human rights monitoring and implementation. While we think that every state should move into the direction of digital tracking to enhance transparency on the implementation of human rights and provide an up-to-date repository of the fulfilment of its obligations, if everyone goes their own ways, we just move from “paper-silos” to “electronic silos”. 

One solution would be the global use of one common tool, the other to ensure a coherent global structure for individual tools. That way, the users in the international system can source information from those tools in a coherent way. This technical solution at the national level will be one possibility of harnessing the positive potential of digitisation, to help master the otherwise increasing challenges on privacy and instances of repression specific to this digital era.