PUCL Bulletin, Nov. 2000

I.T. Empowerment and Human Rights

-- By D. Jagannathan

The global information infrastructure is creating gaps between the rich minority and the poor majority larger and wider than any other socio-economic and cultural phenomena in the history of mankind. Whereas the number of computers per thousand people is 300 - 500 in countries like U.S.A. and Norway, the world average is 36, in India it is 1.1 and sub Saharan Africa with its 500 million people less than one. We need information infrastructures to focus on efficiency, sustainability, and democratisation with potentially massive impact on living condition and it must be done using a tele-communication structure with education levels varying from Ph.D. to illiteracy. These information infrastructure and technology is not culturally and socially neutral rather it must be made adaptable to its local environment and made useful. Because of the existing gap between the rich monitory and the poor monitory in India and also the gap between urban cities and rural areas it is very essential that this potential of Information technology is made available to all the sections of the Indian sub Continent so that the avenues of human development is equally made available to all the sections. This would also add on to the efforts that are required from the State in order to improve the living conditions of the people of this country. It is in this context, emphasized that grass route communities should be enable to utilize the rapidly expanding information infrastructure. In fact, this empowerment would enhance the availability of rights to all the citizens. A vital aspect indicating the urgency of this aspect is a major paradigm change in Information Technology and Political economy. The emergence of economic institutions likes WTO, and the concepts like opening up of economies, etc. has thrown many economic opportunities. If these economic opportunities were available only to small section of the Indian public, it would not only impair development of this country but also prove to be harmful, in the long term, to the economy.

Once can easily visualize the speed with which basic education can be imparted to large number of children in far fledged area through a single network providing basic educational inputs. All that would be needed is to provide human interface at various points to ensure that the technology is effectively used by the public at large.

Education in human rights is itself a fundamental human right and also a responsibility: people who do not know their rights are more vulnerable to having them abused and often language and conceptual framework to effectively advocate for them. In a world where access to information, technology, and connectivity are the keys to individual empowerment, these rights are as fundamental as those in the physical world. We recognise that the Internet and its related networks represent an open avenue for potential improvement of the human condition, including freedom, justice, equality and peace worldwide. The transition from a property based to information based society creates a new power structure that also has the potential to oppress and exploit those lacking skills or access to information and communications tools. It is essential, in a globally networked information society that fundamental human rights extend to embrace access to education and connectivity, and that these too should be protected by the rule of law. It is vital to remote the dissemination of information, as a resource which when shared, is multiplied, rather than divided between its possessors.

The Internet has quickly become one of the key elements of what has been called the 'Global Information Infrastructure', acting as the tool which enables the Global Information Society', The rapid expansion of electronic communication has brought about enormous change in many spheres of society, including human rights where many organisations have quickly adopted the technology as a tool for their work. The nature of human rights abuse necessities rapid action to respond to violations. The Internet provides the obvious tool for rapid, cheap and accurate information to be supplied in response. Internet, as a means of quick and cheap communication, provides a major new resource to the human rights non-governmental organisations to enhance their work. Accurate and timely information is an indispensable tool and essential precondition for effective responsive action and promotion of Human Rights, whether by organisations, individuals, governments, or international Institutions.

The number and range of human rights organisations, which have been established with a primary focus on monitoring, collating, managing and disseminating information demonstrates the importance of information in the field of human Rights. Examples of such organisations are the human rights information and Documentation system International (HURDIOCS) that is a global network of Human Rights organisations. Its aim to improve access to, and dissemination of, public information on human rights through more effective, appropriate and compatible methods and techniques of information handling.

In 1990 Amnesty International USA became one of the first NGOs in America to completely embrace electronic communications. This involved finding on line service provider, setup email accounts and addresses, and arranging training to enable the use of email to be implemented. The result allowed Amnesty International workers and voluntaries across America to communicate quickly and cheaply amongst themselves, arguably creating more effective and economic communications and enhancing their work on human rights.

The power and importance of email in human rights and in the creation and strengthening of networks is important.

Anyone who receives a news release or urgent action by email or loose on the Website can find anything about an issue. The Internet is even as a tool for preventive work. It can be done by improving protection of Human Rights defenders, by building better networks and coalitions amongst NGOs and through human rights education and awareness.

When will we be able to do something in India is anybody's guess. But we have to start thinking about it.

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