This blog is by Daniel Erhardt Nielsen, LLM Candidate in Human Rights at Edinburgh Law School. It presents some of the issues he examined during his work-based placement with DIGNITY (Danish Institute against Torture) over summer 2020.
New technologies and the online space are a double-edged sword for human rights. On the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary this year, the UN Secretary-General remarked that, while digital technologies help us advocate, defend, and exercise our rights, they are too often used to violate them. Such pronouncements invite us all – not least human rights scholars and practitioners – to explore these “new frontiers” and critically interrogate the meaning of terms like “cyber” within our fields of work and expertise.
Serious gaps remain in our understanding of what may be at stake in our increasingly digital world. This blog seeks to tease out some preliminary thoughts on what can be considered one such gap: How does the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment relate to violence committed using cyber-technologies?
Calls for Attention on Malicious Uses of New Technologies.
The idea that cyber-technologies could be used to violate human rights is nothing new. The problem has been deliberated among international political and judicial bodies for over a decade, and there is an ongoing effort by human rights practitioners and scholars to understand how international human rights law (IHRL) may protect against such violations.
Much of this work, however, has focused on how cyber technologies relate to the right to information, and freedom of opinion, expression, association, privacy, speech, and thought. Thus, only a narrow slice of the full spectrum of our rights and freedoms potentially affected by cyber-technologies has thoroughly been considered.
What is new is the idea that cyber-technologies may be used to inflict harm – commit acts of violence – severe enough to be inconsistent with instruments of IHRL. Only recently has the cyber-area been explicitly discussed in relation to the prohibition against torture under a UN mandate. In March, the Special Rapporteur on Torture (SRT) Nils Melzer highlighted “cybertorture” in the final section of his annual report to the Human Rights Council (HRC). He used the term to refer to the use of cybertechnology for the purposes of torture. As of today, this specific problem has been considered by remarkably few scholars.
What is Meant by the “Cyber-dimension?”
Inconsistent terminology is one of the major challenges to assessing how cyber-technologies can be used to commit harmful or violent acts. It is unsurprisingly difficult to try and comprehend any definite legal distinctions between terms like cyber-abuse, cyber-harassment, cyber-harm, cyber-ill-treatment, cyber-bullying, cyber-violence, cyber-crime, and cyber-torture.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre
First and foremost, we should distinguish between violence that is committed through cyber-technologies and violence that is enabled by cyber-technologies. It is the difference between sending death threats on social media, versus locating a person via a mobile application only to then verbally deliver the threats in person. In the latter instance, it seems as though technology is not inherent to the act itself. Hence, what is of interest here is the former – acts of violence through cyber-technologies. Could the orchestration of a continuous, targeted, personal defamation campaign across the internet resulting in social exclusion and mental suffering for the victim be considered torture or ill-treatment?
Torture is among the gravest of crimes, and the process of determining whether a specific act or pattern of violence is inconsistent with the prohibition of torture is a careful case-by-case assessment. As such, “cyber-violence” seems more appropriate for describing the phenomenon at hand than “cyber-crime” or “cyber-torture,” since it avoids prematurely qualifying a specific instance of online activity as a criminal act or as an act of torture or ill-treatment. It also seems more helpful to talk about a “cyber-dimension” to torture as opposed to “cyber-torture,” as the latter seems to indicate the existence of a new separate form of torture rather than a new means of committing torture.
Several areas of violence can in this way be said to have a strong cyber-dimension – violence against women and girls (VAWG), child sexual exploitation (CSE), racism and xenophobia, homophobia, harassment and bullying, shaming and defamation, etc.
The UN on Human Rights & Cyber Technologies
Both the HRC and General Assembly (GA) have repeatedly stated that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.” Over the years, the GA has convened six Groups of Governmental Experts and an Open-ended Working Group, which have only made general statements on IHRL regarding cyber-technologies. Beyond the SRT, the Special Rapporteurs on the Sale of Children and Child Pornography and Violence against Women have also addressed acts of severe violence committed through the internet.
Legal Standards & Jurisprudence
There are no legal standards nor any case law directly addressing acts of torture or ill-treatment through cyber-technologies. The question of how the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment may apply in relation to cyber technologies is an entirely new area of IHRL application. Any attempt to provide and answer will therefore necessitate a great deal of fact-finding and legal interpretation.
A few tentative statements can be made about the phenomenon to focus the scope of future jurisprudential analyses. First, instances of cyber-violence are likely to be perpetrated by non-state actors. Second, they are committed remotely and non-physically. Third, they seem to disproportionately affect women and minorities. Therefore, relevant jurisprudence should especially address the positive State obligations related to torture and ill-treatment, acts of violence committed through non-physical means, and areas of violence associated with specific vulnerable groups, such as VAWG, CSE, racism and xenophobia, homophobia, etc.
The Way Forward
Explorations into cyber-violence as a new area of IHRL application must engage in comparative legal interpretation – mapping exercises that take established rules and principles and lets them inform us about this largely unaddressed phenomenon. Judicial bodies qualify an act as torture through case-by-case assessment in accordance with definitional criteria set out in the UN Convention against Torture or other applicable national legislation. A specific instance of cyber-violence should be treated similarly.
As scholars and courts have begun recognizing non-physical forms of torture and ill-treatment, have cyber-technologies facilitated yet another adaptation in the techniques of torture? Is it the latest in a long line of so-called “stealth torture techniques?”