Following the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Laura O’Brien, UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now, a civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world. Through direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grant-making, legal interventions and convenings such as RightsCon, Access Now fights for human rights in the digital age.
To what extent is the UN’s founding Charter fit for the internet era?
For years civil society has encouraged the UN to modernise its operations to maintain its relevance in the digital age. In 2020, the UN met this harsh reality. The international organisation was forced to take the majority of its operations online, all the while trying meaningfully to reach the global community and advance international cooperation amid a global health crisis, systemic racism, climate change and rising authoritarianism. Commemorating the UN’s 75th anniversary by revisiting its founding Charter – a document centred on inherent human dignity – could not have been more crucial.
The UN Charter was drafted long before the internet even existed. Nonetheless, its global outlook remains consistent with the universal nature of the internet, which at its best enables borderless knowledge societies grounded in fundamental human rights, while also amplifying the need to reduce risks, not solely through sovereign means, but also through international cooperation. Guided by the principles of the UN Charter, the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations rightfully commits to improving digital cooperation worldwide. Through this formal commitment, the UN finally paid heed to the transformative impact digital technologies have on our daily lives, paving a path – or, as better captured by the UN Secretary-General, a ‘roadmap’ – to steer us through the promises and perils of the digital age.
While world leaders recognised the need to listen to ‘the people’ – as captured in the preamble of the UN Charter – civil society continues to remind those leaders to listen more actively. With missions rooted in extending and defending the fundamental human rights of all individuals, civil society remains an essential force to advance stakeholder accountability and ensure transparency in often opaque multilateral processes.
What challenges have you faced in your interactions with the UN system, and how did you manage them?
I stepped into my public-facing role as UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown here in New York. As such, I was a new voice navigating the challenges civil society was facing at that time: how do we ensure that civil society partners, in all their diversity, are meaningfully involved in UN discussions as the UN transitions its operations online? At that time, we feared that the exceptional measures used to fight the pandemic could be cited to restrict civil society access and opportunities for participation within UN fora. So we mobilised. Several civil society organisations, CIVICUS included, worked together to provide principles and recommendations to the UN to ensure civil society inclusion in UN discussions during the pandemic and beyond. This helped us work together to present a united position on the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and to remind the UN to put adequate protections in place to ensure accessible online platforms and sufficient safeguards to protect the security of those participating virtually.
What things are currently not working and would need to change? In what ways is civil society working towards that kind of change?
2020 was a humbling year of critical self-reflection both on an individual and collective level. Now, more than ever, the world is realising that the state-centric model will not propel us into a hopeful future. Problems in one part of the world have consequences worldwide. The decisions we make now, particularly regarding digital technologies, will impact on future generations to come. As the world recovers from the events of 2020, we need world leaders to build off the lessons learned and continue to engage in critical reflection. Solving global challenges requires interdisciplinary action that respects and protects rights-holders who come from diverse and intersectional backgrounds. We simply cannot continue to operate or tackle these issues top-down. Indeed, threats like disinformation often originate at the top.
Civil society worldwide is mobilising to spearhead global campaigns to raise awareness of the issues we face today, and their impact on future generations, while advocating for accountability across national, regional and international forums. From condemning internet shutdowns – #KeepItOn – to questioning the implementation of digital identity programmes worldwide – #WhyID – we are working to report, monitor and measure, and provide rights-respecting policy recommendations based on our diverse interactions with those most at risk.
Looking more broadly at the global multilateral system today, what do you think are its main weaknesses, and what lessons can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic?
The global multilateral system needs to stop operating and addressing global issues in silos. This requires not only better networked multilateralism – across the UN system in both New York and Geneva, and including regional organisations and financial institutions, among others – but also that global issues be addressed from a more interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, research suggests that over 90 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to international human rights and labour. Protecting human rights is therefore necessary to reach the SDGs. Why then do international actors continue to raise the SDGs only in tandem with discussions around development and not human rights?
Many lessons can be drawn from the pandemic to advance more inclusive international cooperation. In 2020 the UN was made acutely aware of the benefits of internet connectivity, reaching more diverse voices worldwide. People normally unable physically to access UN platforms based in Geneva and New York – due to a myriad of barriers – were now able to contribute meaningfully to UN discussions online. Yet simultaneously, online operations also made the UN formally acknowledge the severe impact for the approximately 4 billion people who continue to remain disconnected from the internet. Those individuals may suffer network discrimination, experience various barriers due to digital divides and inadequate digital literacy resources, or remain disconnected through targeted internet shutdowns.
Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access to UN discussions through accessible virtual platforms. Just as the UN is built to facilitate state-to-state interactions, the world would benefit from similarly secure and open venues for civil society to connect. Unfortunately, too many communities remain marginalised and vulnerable. People often face reprisals for raising their voices and telling their stories across borders. We strive to create this open civil forum at RightsCon – the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age – and similar events. In July 2020, RightsCon Online brought together 7,681 participants from 157 countries across the world in a virtual summit. The organisers overcame affordability and access barriers by launching a Connectivity Fund to provide direct financial support for participants to connect and engage online. These convenings should be considered integral to internet governance, but also to achieving the three pillars of the UN – development, human rights and peace and security – in the digital age. When carried out inclusively and securely, online participation presents an opportunity to widen the number and diversity of those engaging with the platform and removes barriers and resource constraints linked to travel.
Overall, the international community must lean into the lessons of 2020. We must work in solidarity to advance open, inclusive and meaningful international cooperation in order to achieve a prosperous future for all.