Third Committee Experts Caution that Abuse of Technology Threatens Free Thought, Privacy Rights, as Delegates Call for Dismantling Unjust Laws
Scholars and human rights defenders warn that technology advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology may enable access to the very content of human thought, affecting how people think, feel and behave, experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates discussed freedom of thought and religion, and the right to privacy.
While people are unable to “read” thoughts reliably today, the potential for this to change is prompting many scholars to push for measures against the abuse of technology, said Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Although some consider that all thoughts are “free before being expressed”, emerging technologies increasingly challenge this understanding.
He warned that counter-terrorism measures, “re-education” programmes, torture, conversion practices, forcible administration of psychoactive drugs, and coercive treatments for one’s mental health may all impermissibly alter or be used to sanction thoughts ‑ sometimes physically modifying people’s brains. Freedom of thought is not only a stand-alone right, but also foundational for many other rights related to conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, he stressed.
In the ensuing debate, Australia’s representative drew attention to religious crimes, pointing out that 21 countries still criminalize apostasy, including 12 where it is a capital offence. She asked how anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws foster an environment in which people feel entitled to engage in violence and reprisals. The Russian Federation’s representative meanwhile condemned the politicized stance of some countries, calling for equal respect for all religions, while Iran’s representative expressed concern over a surge in Islamophobic remarks by political figures and Heads of State.
Also briefing the Committee was Ana Brian Nougrères, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, who focused on the protection of personal data, as well as the use of apps, contact tracking and mass surveillance. “Never has technology had so much potential to enable emergency strategies that so clearly violate human rights and individual freedoms,” she warned.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on 20 October to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
Interactive Dialogues ‑ Freedom of Religion, Belief
AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, presenting his report (document A/76/380), said the “freedom of thought” is essential for human dignity, agency and existence ‑ yet it faces significant pressures worldwide, current and emerging, at the hands of State and non-State actors. Scholars and human rights defenders particularly warn that advances in digital technology, neuroscience and cognitive psychology may enable access to the very content of human thought and affect how people think, feel and behave.
He said practices and policies, such as counter-terrorism measures, “re-education” programmes, torture, conversion practices, forcible administration of psychoactive drugs, and coercive treatments for one’s mental health may impermissibly alter or be used to sanction thoughts. Some of these phenomena may physically modify people’s brains or be used to force them to reveal thoughts. Expressing concern that vulnerable groups are often disproportionately affected, including racial and religious minorities or gender-diverse persons, he said freedom of thought ‑ enshrined in Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ‑ can be neither restricted nor derogated from. He underscored that freedom of thought is not only a stand-alone right, but also foundational for many other rights including conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression. Restricting one’s freedom of expression may stifle the development of thoughts, he said, stressing that freedom of thought is imperative for freedom within religion or belief, in addition to freedom from religion in thinking freely on all matters independently of religion or belief systems.
While some consider that all thoughts are “free before being expressed” and that skulls themselves provide natural protection, he said, emerging technologies increasingly challenge this understanding. While people are unable to “read” thoughts reliably today, the potential for this to change through the use of technology prompts many scholars to push for measures against the abuse of such advances. The task is to protect freedom of thought against existing and emerging challenges, he explained, calling on the global community ‑ including academia and human rights practitioners ‑ to further map the contours of this right, and to identify ways to safeguard this freedom for all.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of the United States expressed concern over Government targeting and societal intolerance of individuals because of their religious beliefs. No one should fear harassment, discrimination, or violence for their beliefs, he stressed, highlighting the extreme plight of members of religious minority groups in China, including in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as in Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran and the Russian Federation. He asked Mr. Shaheed to describe some of his office’s most significant accomplishments. The representative of the United Kingdom, noting that his country will host a Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in 2022, asked Mr. Shaheed how international partners can best work together to gather, and share, credible information.
Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation, warning about increased intolerance around the world, condemned the politicized stance of some countries. Calling for a comprehensive approach to religious issues and equal respect for all religions, he stressed that constant persecution by Ukraine and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has persisted for several years. At the legislative level, there are proposals to confiscate church property, he said, asking the Special Rapporteur to focus on this issue and help Ukraine’s authorities to address it.
The representative of Australia focused on religious crimes, such as anti-apostasy, anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws. Pointing to Mr. Shaheed’s report, she highlighted that 21 countries still criminalize apostasy, including 12 countries where it is a capital offence. These laws cannot be justified under the international human rights framework, she stressed, adding that it protects individuals rather than religions. She asked how anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws foster an environment in which people feel entitled to engage in violence and reprisals.
The representative of Iran rejected accusations by his counterpart from the United States, stressing that in both law and practice Iranians have every access to education, health care, housing and employment. To ensure that the voices of other religions are heard, several seats in Parliament are allocated to their representatives. Expressing concern over the surge of Islamophobic comments propagated by political figures and even heads of States, he asked how it is possible that certain Western Governments claim to defend human rights and freedom of religion while implementing laws that prevent Muslim girls from attending school only because they wear the hijab.
Also taking part in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Colombia, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Israel, France, Malta, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Poland, China, Morocco and Algeria. Observers for the European Union and the Sovereign Order of Malta also spoke.
Mr. SHAHEED, responding, said countries that criminalize apostasy engage in serious violation of freedom of thought and belief. Violations of the freedom of thought occur everywhere, he explained, even in societies regarded as “free”. Calling on States to respect and protect the freedom of thought and religion, he highlighted a wide range of such abuses. In an age of technological advancement, there is significant pressure on the freedom of thought, he warned. For example, some technologies show promise in treating Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also carry particular risks, notably by altering people’s thoughts without their informed consent or forcibly revealing their thoughts beyond therapeutic purposes and modifying their brains.
Right to Privacy
ANA BRIAN NOUGRÈRES, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, presenting the report of her predecessor (document A/76/220), said that it examines the right to privacy in the context of the COVID‑19 pandemic and its impact on the protection of personal data, as well as the use of apps, contact tracking and mass surveillance. “Never has a pandemic faced such an obvious crisis of the right to privacy and personal data protection,” she said. “Never has technology had so much potential to enable emergency strategies that so clearly violate human rights and individual freedoms.” The report contains a set of recommendations for States and non-State actors that include protecting vulnerable groups and working with experts and civil society in a transparent manner.
She went on to outline her vision for her role as Special Rapporteur, noting that she will contribute to the qualitative development and practical application of personal data protection and privacy, promoting global awareness and education, while also addressing issues related to her home region of Latin America. She will set up Working Groups together with other Special Rapporteurs, United Nations entities, technology communities, corporations, social network managers, civil society, academia and experts in the field, she said, continuing the work undertaken by the previous Special Rapporteur on artificial intelligence, data in health, incorporation of ethical principles in the handling of privacy, and attention to particularly disadvantaged groups.
She expressed her aim to work towards a world in which privacy and personal data protection move harmoniously towards a global context structured on the basis of mutual respect, agreed-upon principles, more justice and less discrimination. She also welcomed the recent adoption of the Privacy in the Internet Age report by the Human Rights Council, which she said she would use as a source of inspiration.
When the floor opened for comments and questions, several delegations pointed to surveillance used by some States as a violation of privacy, with the representative of Switzerland underscoring that the use of targeted facial recognition software could violate privacy and human rights. The representative of Pakistan said some States have conducted surveillance that violates privacy in the name of national security. He asked the Special Rapporteur for her views on whether an international framework is needed to prevent invasions of privacy and how States can be held accountable. The representative of the United States expressed concern over the misuse of surveillance by authoritarian Governments, as it stifles the freedoms of expression, assembly and association.
Several delegates highlighted the need to protect vulnerable groups, with the representative of Egypt noting that, in his country, judicial officers are prohibited from disclosing a victim’s information in rape and child endangerment cases. It is also working to amend its law to protect the privacy of victims, defendants and whistleblowers. Meanwhile, the representative of Croatia noted that children, adolescents and young people are among those who need special attention. He asked the Special Rapporteur what can be done to ensure that privacy rights have the same level of protection online as they do offline.
Delegates also highlighted concerns over the protection of personal data, with the representative of the Russian Federation emphasizing the importance of safeguarding personal data and taking requisite steps to do so that align with national legislation and international practices. The representative of Brazil said the data protection law of 2020 requires that business and the Government adopt security measures to ensure privacy online. He asked the Special Rapporteur what information-sharing mechanisms can be developed between Governments, businesses and civil society to enhance data protection.
Also speaking were representatives of Germany, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Austria, Malta, United Kingdom, China and India, as well as an observer for the European Union.
Ms. NOUGRERES responded by noting that a legal framework on privacy would be helpful and should be decided upon on a country-by-country basis. Future work under her mandate, she said, would focus on data security after the pandemic, as well as privacy on and off the Internet. She would also like to work towards harmonizing privacy systems and to meet with State representatives to establish guidelines. The issue of algorithms is also a concern, she added.