Technology in the Service of Human Rights and the UN: Human Rights Day 2013

By Benetech, posted on

Today, December 10th, we’re delighted to join the Silicon Valley United Nations Association in observance of Human Rights Day, which marks this year the 65th anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Part of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Campaign, the Silicon Valley United Nations Association is dedicated to promoting the United Nations to Americans in order to mobilize our community to create a just and livable world. Tonight, at 6pm, at the Calabazas Branch Library in San Jose, I’ll be giving a talk for the Silicon Valley United Nations Association about some of the ways in which we at Benetech are working on human rights issues globally and in support of the United Nations. I cannot imagine a more fitting group or day to speak about this subject!

Benetech was founded to be a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit—in order to realize the potential of technology to make the world a better place for everyone, not just the richest or best represented. We asked ourselves what we, as technologists in Silicon Valley, could do to advance a world in which all people can access information critical to their lives, achieve literacy and benefit from high quality education. A world where no story of human rights abuse goes unaccounted for and human rights defenders are empowered to advance their causes. A world in which all people have access to the Earth’s unspoiled natural resources and a fair chance to live into an environmentally sustainable future.

We realized we could make maximum social impact by developing technology applications that address pressing social problems but that had not been developed by for-profit businesses because they wouldn’t generate big profits. We want to bridge the market failure gap and make sure technology benefits all of humanity, not just the richest 5%!

Today, nearly 25 years since our founding, the technology we provide across our multiple program areas promotes human rights globally and helps people around the world live fuller lives. You can read more about the impact we’ve created, but no matter in what area we’re involved, we know that our technology applications create social progress only in the hands of users—which is why we’ve been working with programmatic partners and collaborators, both in the United States and internationally. Let me give you a few examples of our work promoting human rights issues globally and of our collaboration with the United Nations towards that cause.

First, in our Global Literacy Program, we work to open up new horizons for the world’s millions of people with limited accessibility to information and literacy. These include people who cannot see text or images, cannot physically turn the pages of a book, have learning disabilities, like dyslexia, or those with development disabilities who have not been taught to read into adulthood because the expertise and cost required are seen as too high. Sadly, for many of these individuals, disability correlates strongly not only with a low literacy rate, but also with related outcomes of unemployment, poverty, sexual violence and social exclusion.

In order to make barriers facing people with disabilities a thing of the past, we’ve been engaged for years in legal advocacy supporting two landmark United Nations disability treaties. The first is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—a vital framework for creating legislation and policies embracing the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. The other is the recently adopted “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled”—an international copyright exception model that makes it possible to deliver accessible books to people with print disabilities across borders. We’ve written on this blog about our work for the adoption of the Marrakesh Treaty and invite you to read more about it.

In both cases, these treaties provide the same kinds of human and civil rights globally that people in the United States already enjoy under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and our terrific copyright exception system, including fair use and our disability-specific exception that led to the creation of Bookshare, our digital library for people who have a disability that interferes with reading print. Bookshare serves over a quarter million Americans today. The Marrakesh Treaty creates a legal environment that will make it much easier to spread the benefits of Bookshare (and similar libraries) to the world’s millions of people with disabilities who need access to books and information.

Second, in our Human Rights Program, the technology that anchors our Program—Martus—has played a crucial role in strengthening the human rights community. A free, open source software application that allows users anywhere in the world to securely gather and organize information about human rights violations, Martus enables human rights defenders on the front lines of fighting abuse to stay safe and protects the identities of those who would face violence and repression for telling their stories. Our Martus Field Team has trained hundreds of human rights groups and individuals, in over 40 countries, on Martus use and human rights documentation best practices, and has helped many users turn the first-hand accounts of violations they had gathered into evidence of abuse that advances their advocacy for greater respect for human rights.

Moreover, for nearly a decade our Human Rights Program included the data-driven, scientific side of analyzing human rights violations. This was the focus of our Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) that used scientific analysis of large-scale human rights violations to aid the human rights movement, including providing evidence for truth commissions, war crimes tribunals and, most recently, the United Nations.

Our January 2013 analysis for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—using information from six databases compiled by Syrian human rights monitors and one database collected by the Syrian government—found that at least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war through November 2012. This authoritative number was significantly higher than the existing estimates that had dominated news and policy discussions. The analysis made news globally and expanded an international conversation. Earlier this year, HRDAG successfully spun out from Benetech to become its own independent organization and continues to work on counting casualties in the Syrian conflict (their latest number is 93,000 through the end of April this year), among other projects.

Finally, working to promote human rights globally is something we’re doing as part of our newest program area, Benetech Labs. Right now, Benetech Labs is looking at a full spectrum of new ideas: from helping clean water organizations in Latin America provide their communities essential services like clean water and sanitation, to exploring software to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by farms in the United States, to helping labor rights groups track child labor, human trafficking and other abuses.

I hope you join the Silicon Valley United Nations Association and me tonight at 6pm, at the Calabazas Branch Library in San Jose, to celebrate Human Rights Day and learn more about the ways in which you can get involved as we work together to make a better tomorrow possible today for everyone.