UN Security Council on Digital Rights

Mind the gap: why the UN Security Council should prioritize digital rights

Attacks on or against digital systems have devastating consequences on people and on the enjoyment of human rights by whole communities. Addressing this reality falls clearly within the mandate of the highest decision-making body of the UN, the Security Council (UNSC), “to maintain international peace and security” as well as “to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights.” That means it is expected to ensure that human rights in the digital age remain secured and protected through all the means provided to it, which include the power to approve resolutions binding on all member states. However, our research analyzing digital rights language in UN resolutions reveals that the UNSC is lagging behind other UN bodies in recognizing and protecting these rights.  

Access Now has spent more than a decade working with civil society partners to protect the digital rights of people and communities around the world by advocating for rights-respecting global norms at the UN, from the General Assembly (UNGA) to the Human Rights Council (HRC). In many ways, states have listened. By our count, they have passed more than 350 resolutions in these two forums since 2011 that speak to the ways digital technologies impact human rights and sustainable development. 

Yet the UNSC has stayed largely silent on these issues, even as states and armed parties increasingly weaponize communication networks, suppress alternative voices, or block internet access altogether. This silence, which has persisted despite the UNSC’s awareness of the seriousness of digital threats, is deafening, and contributes to the deterioration of international law, peace, and security in the digital age. 

Under the UN Charter, the UNSC has the unique responsibility to defuse potential conflict through peaceful means, including by issuing ceasefire directives and dispatching military observers or a peacekeeping force. It can also opt for enforcement measures, such as economic sanctions, financial restrictions, arms embargoes, diplomatic relations, or even collective military action. Today,  most — if not all — of these areas of work involve digital systems. Bringing digital and cyber issues into the UNSC’s work is essential for the protection of civilians and communities worldwide. 

Below we provide a brief overview of our research findings, including a summary of our recommendations for UNSC Member States. 

NEW ANALYSIS SHOWS GLARING GAPS THAT PUT PEOPLE AT RISK

UN bodies have long recognized that the same rights that people enjoy offline must also be protected online. Their integration of digital and cyber issues into UN workstreams began more than 25 years ago and has increased  ever since. But there is one outlier — the UNSC. 

To quantify the stark contrast between the UNSC and other UN organs, we reviewed more than 300 resolutions adopted by the UNSC since 2001. Our assessment focused on key issues for human rights and human security in the digital age, such as content governance, surveillance technology, data collection, freedom of expression, social media platforms, censorship, access to telecommunications, online propaganda, and emerging technologies. 

We found that the UNSC reserves strong language largely for operational and physical security priorities, neglecting the human rights concerns that arise amid technological disruption. This leaves conflict actors, humanitarian agencies, and, most importantly, vulnerable and marginalized people and communities in the dark, as the world’s most powerful multilateral entity emits little light on how to ensure peace and human security in the face of digital threats.

WHAT THE UNSC HAS FORGOTTEN: THREATS TO HUMAN RIGHTS ARE THREATS TO GLOBAL SECURITY 

The UNSC is only selectively digital-shy. It has addressed the risks and challenges connected to digital and cyber topics in its language concerning UN peacekeeping missions and  counterterrorism measures. For example, in the latest UNSC resolution on the situation concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), it cites the “intensification of intercommunal violence fuelled by hate speech, misinformation and disinformation, including through social media platforms,” to flag impacts on the UN peacekeeping mission. In the 2022 resolution on threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist attacks, meanwhile, it directly emphasizes “the need for Member States to act cooperatively to prevent and counter the use of information and communication technologies, including the Internet, for terrorist purposes.” 

Regrettably, when the UNSC moves away from a UN-centric perspective on peace and security, its  tone weakens. In most of its resolutions, we do not see the kind of urgency that should accompany efforts to protect people from digital and technological threats to their rights, especially when they are facing violence and conflict. 

Even when digital rights issues are well-documented in specific crises, they are often poorly referenced in UNSC resolutions. For instance, despite the fact that there is a record establishing the harmful impact of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech in the country, the UNSC’s 2022 resolution on the situation in Myanmar cites only “restrictions on medical personnel, civil society, labor union members, journalists, and media workers.” 

More recently, the UNSC resolution on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question recognizes the need for the civilian population in the Gaza Strip to have access to electricity and telecommunications, but does not cite or address the attacks on civilian telecommunications infrastructure and repeated internet shutdowns that have had devastating impacts for civilians. This is a striking omission. 

The UNSC is well aware of the seriousness and urgency of digital threats to human rights. In the discussion on the UNSC’s 2021 resolution on protection of civilians in armed conflict resolution, a number of Member State delegates vehemently highlighted the gravity of targeting civilian infrastructure and violating human rights through cyber means. Yet there is no mention of this in the final resolution.

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS TO UNSC MEMBER STATES 

The gaps and omissions we have identified may be due to underinvestment by UNSC Member States in their diplomatic corps, who may lack adequate knowledge of digital and cyber issues. States confronting regional and global crises with fewer personnel in their UN missions may struggle to make new and emerging technologies a priority. A more robust approach to human security in the digital age will require deliberate resourcing and a commitment to engage more deeply with affected communities, NGOs, academics, and private sector experts. 

In our briefing, we provide detailed recommendations for UNSC Member States. Broadly, we recommend that these states: 

  • Map the intersection of their signature issues with human rights and security in the digital age, review their current capacity on digital and cyber issues, and seek to introduce these aspects into UNSC resolutions and debates, in close coordination with affected communities and non-governmental organizations and experts;
  • Ensure the diplomatic corps are trained and provided with regular updates from civil society and technologists on digital rights in situations of insecurity or conflict;
  • Improve the language on digital and cyber issues connected to human rights, especially when it comes to protection and accountability mechanisms; 
  • Ensure consistency in expressing concern for the impact of digital and cyber threats affecting safety, integrity, and security of UN missions and all civil society organizations and communities facing danger;
  • Demand that any call for the introduction of digital solutions for peace and security purposes is accompanied by an adequately strong call to implement human rights due-diligence and mitigation procedures; and 
  • Expand the category of “human security” to include digital and cyber issues that are today essential for the fulfillment of the mission of the UNSC and the UN organization as a whole.

We look forward to working more closely with states, civil society, the private sector, and multilateral organizations on bringing the UNSC’s work into the digital age.