Exploring new technologies at Stanford to monitor human rights


Kiai HL
Appointed in May 2011, Maina Kiai is the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
Photo credit: 
United Nations/Jean-Marc Ferre

It's the middle of the night when Maina Kiai receives an urgent plea from a human rights advocate in Russia. A recent draft law threatens to block civil society organizations from accessing foreign funding, cutting off their financial lifeline and exposing them to close monitoring by the state. Their work reporting on the government's moves to choke public dissent and suppress free speech is in jeopardy if this law is passed by the Russian legislature.

As the special rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association for the United Nations, Kiai's job is to collect first-hand information on human rights abuses and bring it to the attention of the international community.

Kiai is one of about 50 lawyers, experts and advocates around the world who volunteer their time as special rapporteurs for the U.N. Human Rights Council. With mounting case loads, a limited staff and shrinking budgets, special rapporteurs are left with little support to fight injustice and aid victims of some of the gravest human rights abuses.

In search of new tools to empower their work, the rapporteurs are now tapping the academic and innovative resources at Stanford to help them do their jobs better.

Harnessing the power of technology

Professor Jeremy Weinstein led the August workshop on new technologies and human rights monitoring.
Photo credit: Sarina Beges

Recognizing that technology can increase productivity and efficiency, Stanford’s Jeremy M. Weinstein organized a workshop to bring technologists together with the rapporteurs and other experts to explore how new technologies can help them magnify their impact.

Weinstein, an associate professor of political science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford, pushed for the use of new technologies as tools for promoting human rights and democracy when he served as the director of democracy and development on the National Security Staff of the White House.

“Special Rapporteurs occupy a unique position, with the legitimacy and mandate of the United Nations behind them as they track human rights abuses around the world," Weinstein said. "New technologies have the potential to amplify their voices, extend their reach, and ensure that citizens around the world have access to this valuable mechanism.”

Weinstein says the rapporteurs can use simple technologies such as database management systems and mobile phone applications to manage the volume of inquiries they receive, increase their response time to victims’ needs and build political support for their recommendations.

Juan Méndez, the rapporteur responsible for tracking torture and other abuses, receives upwards of 50 complaints a day from citizens and NGOs around the world. He wants a way to better organize, process and prioritize inquiries that would allow him to respond to victims in a more strategic, timely and systematic way.

"We have been self conscious of the need to apply new technologies and we are always looking for better ways of applying technology," Méndez said. "In my case, there is quite a learning curve to understand what the new technologies are and how they might work."

One of the most powerful tools for a special rapporteur is the country visit where they spend two to three weeks in a country of concern, visiting local nongovernmental organizations, meeting with government officials, holding press conferences and arranging visits with victims. Special rapporteurs must be invited by the host government to visit and countries with some of the most egregious human rights abuses on record - such as Iran and Zimbabwe - deny them access.

Due to the sensitivity of their findings, special rapporteurs are granted independence and impartiality in their jobs as they often have to say things that make governments uncomfortable. Sharing their findings is a challenge. Other than media coverage, the rapporteurs don’t have easy access to a large audience or the resources to disseminate their findings and recommendations widely in local languages.

But social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter could help heighten their profiles and improve communication with the public. During country missions, for instance, tweets and Facebook posts could easily advertise their visits to attract media and share their findings.

Tapping Stanford's technical edge

Since returning to Stanford where he is a resident faculty member at FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), Weinstein has been using the university's technical edge to benefit those working to advance democratic practices.

Technologists and human rights leaders gathered at Stanford’s d.school to innovate and create new technologies for U.N. special rapporteurs.
Photo credit: Sarina Beges

Teaming up with the Brookings Institution and Google, CDDRL hosted an August workshop to bring together four special rapporteurs, civil society activists, technologists, and government donors to brainstorm how to best pair human rights monitors with the technology they need to be more effective in their work.

"What we’ve done is bring together a group of people who normally don’t talk to each other and got them to think about the subject from various users' points of view - the human rights victim, the civil society activist, the governments, and the special rapporteurs themselves,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and author of a new book, Catalysts for Change: How the UN’s Independent Experts Promote Human Rights . “But we also have experts from technology, from human rights organizers, from think tanks and research organizations, so the combination of smarts and ideas in that mix is fantastic."

The second day of the workshop was held at Stanford's d. school – the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design – where participants put the needs of the user at the center of the design process. Armed with an endless supply of markers, sticky notes and whiteboards, participants divided into groups to brainstorm how technology can assist the special rapporteurs with their mounting caseloads.

The ideas laboratory

Bringing the human rights and technology communities together underscored the gap that exists between the two worlds. Few of the special rapporteurs were using or familiar with technology tools ranging from social media, database management and encryption software.

While the digital divide may be large for some, it was evident from the technologists in the room that there are an abundance of innovative technologies to validate, manage and interpret data for special rapporteurs’ use.

"I would really love a streaming analysis, so public information out there is streamed to me live," said Kiai, the special rapporteur who focuses on assembly and association rights. "I would also like to have a website that can be accessed by activists around the world as a way to communicate and send updates to me."

Sanjana Hattotuwa demonstrates a mock-up of the Web-based dashboard designed for the special rapporteurs.
Photo credit: Sarina Beges

One of the ideas presented by Sanjana Hattotuwa, a special advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation based in Geneva, is a mobile application that would allow anyone anywhere in the world to utilize audio, video, or text to submit a report of a human rights abuse.

"They could track it with a confirmation number, and it's a very easy way of submitting information to the special rapporteurs," said Hattotuwa. This could be a very promising innovation for victims to submit reports from the ease of a mobile device, and to bring them to the attention of the special rapporteurs in real time.

Hattotuwa said data obtained through this app could be fed into a Web-based dashboard system that would feature a world map highlighting where the reports are coming from, allowing the special rapporteur to process and visualize information. The dashboard would also feature a curated news feed.

While the special rapporteurs left the workshop more informed of these new tools and with some tangible ideas of how to enhance their work, many questions remained about the costs and training required for the users, as well as how to build political support for a future with more visible and accessible special rapporteurs.

"I think that there will always be institutional constraints - political constraints - things that we need to work through," said Méndez, the rapporteur who tracks torture cases. "But the four rapporteurs that are here these two days can actually carry the message of technology's use to the U.N. and try to resolve them."

Bringing the two worlds together for this workshop helped close the digital gap and introduce the potential that technology represents to the human rights community and beyond.

"What struck me most is how much there is out there, and how hard it is for us without context, to understand the tech world and how useful it can be," said Kiai. "So that of itself was a revelation."