New technologies –if used right– are vital tools in the fight against human rights violations


GENEVA (19 June 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on summary executions, Christof Heyns, has called on the UN system and other international human rights bodies to “catch up” with rapidly developing innovations in human rights fact-finding and investigations. “The digital age presents challenges that can only be met through the smart use of digital tools,” he said.
In his latest report to the Human Rights Council, Mr. Heyns highlighted that information and communication technologies (ICTs) —the hardware and software that produce and transmit information in the digital space— can play an increasing role in the protection of all human rights, including the right to life, by reinforcing the role of ‘civilian witnesses’ in documenting rights violations.

“We have all seen how the actions of police officers and other who use excessive force are captured on cell phones and lead to action against the perpetrators. Billions of people around the world carry a powerful weapon to capture such events in their pockets,” the expert said. “The fact that this is well-known can be a significant deterrent to abuses.”

The expert described in his report how various organizations are developing alert applications that journalists, human rights defenders and others can use to send an emergency message (along with GPS co-ordinates) to their friends and colleagues if they feel in immediate danger.

“New information tools can also empower human rights investigations and help to foster accountability where people have lost their lives or were seriously injured,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

The use of other video technologies, ranging from CCTV cameras to body-worn “cop cams” can further contribute to filling information gaps. The use of resources such as satellite imagery to verify such videos, or sometime to show evidence of violations themselves, is also an important dimension.

However, despite the many advantages offered by ICTS for the protection of human rights, Mr. Heyns also warned that it will be short-sighted not to see the risks. “Those with the power to violate human rights can easily use peoples’ emails and other communications to target them and also to violate their privacy,” he said.

The human rights expert also noted that the fact that people can use social media to organise spontaneous protests can lead authorities to perceive a threat – and to over-react.

Moreover, there is a danger that what is not captured on video is not taken seriously.   “We must guard against a mind-set that ‘if it is not digital it did not happen,’” he stressed.

In his report, Mr. Heyns also cautioned that not all communities, and not all parts of the world, are equally connected, and draws special attention to the fact that “the ones that not connected are often in special need of protection.”

“There is still a long way to go for all of us to understand fully how we can use these evolving and exciting but in some ways also scary new tools to their best effect,” the expert stated, noting that not all parts of the international human rights community are fully aware of the power and pitfalls of digital fact-finding.

The Special Rapporteur made several recommendations in his report, including that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights appoints as soon as possible a specialist in digital evidence to assist it in making the best use of ICTs.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s report:

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues.  Learn more, log on to:

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.