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Why going virtual can be discriminatory and how to overcome it

Can we have meaningful discussions to design human rights protection mechanisms if some of the most affected communities by human rights violations cannot participate?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures to contain it are not only changing the way we relate but also how we do human rights work – at least temporarily. Now, key discussions by international human rights bodies and institutions are carried out online. While this is great news because human rights work should never stop – particularly now when we are facing the prospect of a looming food crisis -  limiting discussions to the virtual world can also hinder the right of participation of civil society. 

Why could virtual informal and ordinary meetings be discriminatory?

As highlighted by 77 organizations in a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  in many communities and regions in the world,  people simply have no access to the internet. Some might be able to get online outside their homes, but how easy is this under the current confinement measures? For others, the internet connection is temperamental, and while they are able to send and receive emails, they just cannot follow a meeting – remember those times where you tried to understand someone speaking while the connection was breaking every 3 minutes.

Beyond access to internet, the accessibility of virtual spaces and discussions can also be hampered by language and time zone barriers. How feasible is it for a Spanish speaker living in Ecuador to participate in a meeting conducted in English at 12pm CET?

During COVID-19, repression is increasing even more. This really conditions the work by civil society organizations who operate in oppressive regions or contexts. They face numerous risks that can compromise the security of information and consequently, the safety of their members. 

FIAN International adressing this issue at 2nd Virtual Meeting of Human Rights Council. Click on image to listen to statement

How can we overcome this problem?

Civil society organizations are proposing a series of measures that can make processes and discussions more inclusive. Among some key proposals , they underline that the choice of time for meetings should ensure representative participation of civil society from different regions in the world. In order to prevent potential language barriers, the sessions should also guarantee simultaneous interpretation and explain in detail how to access the different languages during the call. If this is not possible in some particular cases, some discussions and events might need to be conducted in each region. For example, for Latin America and the Caribbean this would imply that the meeting is in Spanish and the time proposed is more accessible for everyone.

A minimum of interventions to speak must be ensured for civil society groups, thus guaranteeing the inclusion of their voices and the plurality of visions. When time restrictions pose a challenge to ensure all voices are accounted for, written contributions can be a fairly good solution. In the case of human rights defenders and organizations working under the watchful eye of oppressive governments, safe participation mechanisms must be put in place. As much as we can, we need to make sure that nobody jeopardizes his/her physical safety or digital security and faces intimidation or retaliation by state and non-state agents.

Making human rights work inclusive is challenging given a number of factors, but it is possible and necessary if we want to find innovative solutions that help us tackle this and future crises.