Technology and Human Rights

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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A few decades ago, in the height of the Cold War, there were two popular explanations about what propels history: the confrontation of ideas versus the control of the means of economic production and the social classes and class struggle it generats. And the time to highlight the crucial importance of technology would have sounded simplistic . At present, when technology presents us with dyzzying changes every day it is not possible to ignore its importance in moving history along . Of course, such importance ought not to be exaggerated. It is just that it should be recognized as one more engine of history, alongside the confrontation of ideas or class struggle. These technological advances have also influenced the work of human rights organizations. For example, Amnesty International, created in 1961, resorted for many years to writing letters to governments on behalf of prisoners of conscience as one of its main techniques. Nowadays, this modality of work would seem, understandably, obsolete.

Later on, following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government publicized a phone number to receive denunciations against political dissidents. In response, Western human rights organizations organized a campaign of phone calls to that number so as to keep it busy and thus to prevent it from being used as the Chinese government intended. Such technique, which nowadays would be considered rudimentary was hailed at the time as a major technical innovation.

Let us consider now how could technology facilitate the implementation or observance of two basic human rights: press freedom and particularly the existence of varied, pluralistic number of mass media; and the right to an education “progressively free”.

With regard to press freedom, it has always been difficult to ensure the existence of a broad range of mass media given the tendency to economic concentration in this field. State subsidies for “alternative media” has proven to be a bottomless pit when as it is often the case, such media is not economically viable. Other solutions have been disappointing. Yet, technology seems to offer a possible way out with social networks and who knows what else comes next. Certainly, these solutions are not a magic bullet but they at least shed some light in a dark room.

Concerning the right to education, online, open courses like that one we have just completed on introduction to human rights, have tremendous potential. It is quite possible that within some years they would replace the classroom teaching, starting at the university level. The road towards free or at least low-cost education begins, gradually, to be paved . Of course, many problems have yet to be solved. One of the most difficult ones has to do with the proper evaluation of students. Without hoping for messianic solutions, it may be anticipated that technology will be providing some possible responses.

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