UN Calls on States to Ensure New Technologies Protect Right to Peaceful Protest

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Ms Michelle Bachelet, has called on States and businesses to ensure that new technologies, including facial recognition and the so-called ‘less-lethal weapons,’ are developed and used in ways that do not disrupt and prevent people’s ability to exercise their fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression, as well as their right to participate in public affairs.

Bachelet noted that “New technologies can be used to mobilize and organize peaceful protests, form networks and coalitions, and help people to be better informed about demonstrations and the reasons they are happening, thus driving social change, ”but observed that “… as we have seen, they can be – and are being – used to restrict and infringe on protesters’ rights, to surveil and track them, and invade their privacy.”

These were contained in a report published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which examined the impact of new technologies on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of assemblies, including peaceful protests.

The report notes that in 2019, protests took place across the world for complex and varied reasons, including in response to structural and racial discrimination and worsening socio-economic conditions, and that this discontent has continued in 2020.

“Given the importance of the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly for democracies, and the role Internet-based technologies can play, it is crucial that States close the digital divide and ensure the greatest number of people possible can get secure affordable Internet access,” the High Commissioner pointed out.

The report advised States to  avoid resorting to Internet shutdowns, also called “network shutdowns”, “kill switches” or “blackouts,” which the report terms “a particularly pernicious way of interfering with ICT [information and communications technology] and thus also with assemblies.”

At least 65 such shutdowns took place during protests in 2019, jeopardizing the right of peaceful assembly both online and offline. In addition, such Internet shutdowns were reported to have had a significant economic impact.

The report noted that technology-enabled surveillance has been a major factor in the shrinking of civic space in many countries, with States resorting to intrusive online surveillance and the hacking of ICT tools and social media accounts used by those planning or organizing protests, as well as of protesters themselves.

One particular aspect detailed in the report is the use of facial recognition technology, which allows for the automated identification, surveillance and tracking of protesters. The report noted that many people feel discouraged from demonstrating in public places and freely expressing their views when they fear they could be identified and suffer negative consequences. Moreover, facial recognition technology may also perpetuate and amplify discrimination, including against Afro-descendants and other minorities.

The report urges states to avoid the use of facial recognition technology to identify those peacefully participating in an assembly, and to refrain from recording footage of protesters unless there are concrete indications participants are engaging in, or will engage in, criminal activity.

There should be a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in the context of peaceful protests until States meet certain conditions including human rights due diligence before deploying it. These include effective, independent oversight of its use; strict privacy and data protection laws; and full transparency about the use of image recordings and facial recognition technology in the context of assemblies.

Bachelet said: “As people gather worldwide to protest against racism, including by law enforcement officials, the right to peaceful assembly has never been more important. Facial recognition should not be deployed in the context of peaceful protests without essential safeguards regarding transparency, data protection, and oversight in place.”

The report also details the responsibility of private companies to carry out human rights due diligence, in particular, to ensure that data protection and non-discrimination requirements are included in the design and implementation of these technologies.

It also examined the use of other new technologies, specifically less-lethal weapons and ammunition. While batons, pepper spray and tear gas have been used by law enforcement officials for many decades, advances in technology have led to the development of new types of less-lethal weapons and ammunition that are used to crackdown on protesters. These include conducted electrical weapons such as tasers, advanced kinetic impact projectiles, pepper balls and pepper ball launchers, acoustic weapons and drones, and autonomous systems that deploy tear gas.

Bachelet said the “So-called less-lethal weapons have caused devastating harm when used during peaceful protests across the globe. While these weapons may be needed in some law enforcement settings, there is an urgent need for their use to be closely monitored and the standards of necessity and proportionality to be rigorously applied.”

he pointed out that: “A less-lethal weapon can kill if it is improperly used, whether deliberately or accidentally. Mandatory training in less-lethal weapons for law enforcement personnel is also essential, as is ensuring accountability for human rights violations related to their misuse.”

The High Commissioner called on States to strictly comply with the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

She also urged them to take into account the United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement issued recently by her Office.