The 1968 United Nations Debate on Human Rights and Tech

by Steven L. B. Jensen, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights Blog, Blog, By invitation

Social media, digitalisation, datafication, AI, internet access, surveillance capitalism and the vast powers of tech companies have all become issues of critical concern for the human rights community. In the debate, we often focus on the newness of the evolving challenges. However, it may be worthwhile to take a step back and note that the nexus between human rights and tech is more foundational to the evolution of the international human rights legal project than we normally think.

In April-May 1968, the international community gathered for the First International Conference on Human Rights. It was organised by the United Nations and took place over three weeks in Teheran and was the predecessor to the much better known 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights.

It is noteworthy that an item on “Human Rights and Scientific and Technological Developments” was part of the agenda and thereby up for discussion among the 84 UN Member States attending the conference.

Jamaica, the global leader in international human rights diplomacy during the 1960s, was the driving force behind the conference and their speech in Teheran therefore carried added weight. Jamaica put a focus on human rights and tech:

”Already the advances in technology, of which we are so proud, have begun to present us with new human rights problems unforeseen by those who drafted the Universal Declaration – problems for which new standards of conduct may need to be enunciated.”

In 1962, Jamaica had proposed that 1968 should be an International Human Rights Year to mark the 20th anniversary for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The real aim behind this diplomatic initiative was to energize the floundering human rights project at the United Nations that was not delivering on the legally binding conventions. The Human Rights Year was to be used as leverage to finalise a range of unfinished human rights projects (incl. legal drafting) followed up by evaluating progress and defining a new human rights programme for the future. The 1968 Human Rights Conference was organised to deliver on the last two ambitions. It was in this context the human rights and tech issue emerged.

The conference reflected a larger transformation for international human rights at a critical historical juncture. The proceedings were greatly affected by controversies over the Occupied Territories, Apartheid and colonialism. Despite of these divisive issues it was possible to gain traction on several substantive but less-profiled issues.

At Teheran, it led to the adoption of a Resolution on “Human Rights and Scientific and Technological Developments” which was included in the Final Act from the International Conference on Human Rights. The Resolution was framed around a dual focus on the benefits and the threats that technological developments caused – a duality we also see in today’s debates. The resolution also focused on respect for privacy and “the uses of electronics which may affect the rights of the person and the limits which should be placed upon its uses in a democratic society”. The Resolution acknowledged the complex ethical and legal terrain with respect to human rights that emerged with the tech field.

The Final Act was sent to the UN General Assembly in New York which adopted a similarly titled Resolution on 19 December 1968. The UN General Assembly Resolution called for “constant attention” to the issue and emphasized the need to draw up standards to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in this area.

The UN General Assembly requested the UN Secretary-General to prepare a summary report of existing studies on the topic to improve the knowledge base and a draft programme of work for the UN Commission on Human Rights. Human rights and technology was subsequently emphasized in the forward-looking 1969 UN Declaration on Social Progress and Development that linked human rights and development in interesting ways.

The UN Secretary-General published the requested report in March 1970. It explained that the invasions of privacy enabled by the newly developed technologies could be divided into three categories: “physical surveillance, psychological surveillance and data surveillance.” According to the report, relevant standards did exist in a number of countries and a major task was therefore to effectively apply such standards “to the new devices and methods.” A new problem arose when the new techniques were developed that were not “amenable to the old controls and safeguards.”

Member states provided input to the UN Secretary-General’s report. The Republic of China – not mainland China at this point – argued that the United Nations had a substantive norm- or law-making role in the interface between technology, privacy, human rights and peace and security.

The Netherlands submission also emphasized the privacy versus surveillance dimension:

“Technical means of interfering with privacy are being continually improved. As a result of mass production and relatively low prices, such devices are becoming more and more widely used. All modern sales promotion techniques are being used to encourage their distribution, and to arouse interest in them in circles where no such interest previously existed. This would not be particularly important in itself, if it did not reflect a latent demand for such devices. It is clear that many persons are now anxious to keep watch on the private lives of others.”

The Secretary-General’s report also presented NGO positions on the issue. These interventions help illuminate why human rights and technology had emerged as an issue for the 1968 International Human Rights Conference to deal with.

The debates from then echo contemporary discourse in several ways. The emphasis on benefits and threats, the concerns regarding privacy and the uncertainty whether existing human rights standards could live up to the protection needed due to new developments are all issues that were central then and repeatedly raised today.

The question is what historical weight should we give to the above-mentioned Resolutions and the follow-up process? It is only in the last decade or so that we have witnessed a breakthrough for the human rights and tech agenda at the United Nations. There were a lot of competing human rights agendas in the 1970s when the attention shifted towards anti-torture and anti-death penalty campaigns, dissident protests behind the Iron Curtain and the New International Economic Order. Attention soon shifted away from the relations between human rights, scientific and technological developments

Despite these caveats, the story presented here illustrates that human rights and tech has a longer trajectory and that human rights actors have spoken about the double-edged sword that informs the relationship between the two with remarkable clarity and consistency for six decades. History can thereby offer an interesting foundation to the contemporary debate lending more authority to taking the human rights dimensions – and the calls for adequate and balanced protections – seriously.

Blog originally published on August 30, 2022 at Open Global Rights

Feature photo – Abdullah Khan / Flickr

Steven L. B. Jensen is a senior researcher at The Danish Institute for Human Rights. He is the author of the prize-winning book The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960s, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values. His most recent publication is Social Rights and the Politics of Obligation in History (co-edited with Charles Walton). He is currently working on a history of social and economic rights in 20th century international politics. In Autumn 2022, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

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