THE BLOG

Human Rights and Technology: A No-Brainer

10/12/2010 04:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was recently invited to participate in McGill University's Global Conference on Human Rights and Diverse Societies in Montreal, Canada as a McGill-Echenberg Human Rights Fellow. The larger conference, which brought together academics, government officials, human rights professionals, and media leaders from around the world, focused on the legal constructs of human rights in today's increasingly complex world.

In conversations during the forum and the conference itself with my fellow young leaders, who came from places like Bosnia, Belarus, Bhutan, Greece, Ghana, and Georgia, the application of technology in their human rights work was not considered, even once. Though there were certainly many accomplished practitioners included in the proceedings and presentations, technology's potential to aid and enhance their efforts was not viewed as relevant, and in some cases, even possible. From a prime minister's office on gender equality in the Middle East, to an organization working to connect young refugees across Europe, there was and is a technological black hole for my fellow young leaders.

I raise this point not to harangue my peers, who are all doing impactful work, but rather, to point out what a tremendous and low-barrier to entry opportunity exists for the NGOs and governmental organizations working on human rights to leverage technology, particularly those being led by my peers. If human rights professionals are the last or even just late adopters of these pre-existing and proven technologies, the very people they exist to serve suffer.

There are signs that the human rights community has begun to heed the call of progress. For example, I've met many of the innovators who are diversifying traditional NGO roles using new technology through my involvement in the Alliance for Youth Movements. Take Yoav Gross' video work for B'Tselem, Maajid Nawaz' recently launched online counter extremism campaign in Pakistan, Khudi, and the work of AYM's earliest member, Oscar Morales, who used Facebook to fundamentally alter the political reality of Colombia.

Oscar is in Pakistan this week with Maajid helping Khudi as it begins to promote a democratic discourse in Pakistan. His support of Khudi is a sterling example of the network effect that technology can provide those working on human rights -- if only they leverage it. Because of technology, what Oscar did in empowering Colombians to take a stand against the FARC, and more importantly, for peace, did not happen in a vacuum. Maajid's project, like Oscar's, is not an endeavor that a traditional NGO in the human rights community would develop, but then again, Maajid is not a traditional human rights practitioner. He is leveraging technology to do what traditional NGOs could not previously do. The universality of human rights is hotly debated; what does not have to be questioned though is technology's role in furthering them.

A prime example of technology being used to bolster a more traditional NGO function is Refunite.org, a new online platform that provides refugees a substantive and free service to trace and reconnect with the family members from whom they've been separated. Brothers Christopher and David Mikkelsen of Denmark founded Refunite.org as anything but stalwart members of the human rights community.

Technology is not the future, it is the present. Technology, as a low hanging fruit, is beginning to rot on the vine as traditional human rights organizations consider (or don't) the role technology will play in their efforts. If people like Yoav, Maajid, Oscar, Christopher and David can continue to pave the way for human rights practitioners to successfully integrate technology to address their raisons d'être, then there is an increased likelihood the broader community will take note and invest in overcoming inertia with innovation. Technology is not the silver bullet for the surfeit of critical human rights abuses in the status quo, but remains a proven and accessible tool ready to take its place in the tool belts of human rights professionals the world over.