Information Technology and Human Rights
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Information Technology and Human Rights

I. Introduction

The outbreak of the second Balkan war of 1913 caught the Western world unaware. Although the first Balkan war of the previous year had been considered a struggle by the Balkan Slavs against the Turks, the second war involved new and less identifiable groups, and conflicting allegations of atrocities were levied against all combatants. In response to this war-inspired confusion, the newly formed Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sent a delegation to gather basic facts and make an assessment. The seven member delegation set forth from Paris on 2 August 1913 and travelled over water and land for two months. When they arrived in the Balkans, they conducted numerous interviews and investigations which they considered during their passage back and while preparing their report. The report finally came out in the summer of 1914, a year after the delegation’s work had begun, but was overshadowed in the popular media by the more sensational news story of the outbreak of World War I. 2 One year’s work had allowed the delegation to produce an accurate and well written report. The time it took to prepare the report had also denied their report the relevance it would have had a year earlier. [End Page 705]

When the newest round of Balkan troubles emerged with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, information came dramatically faster. Every turn of political fortunes was reported immediately by journalists able to file stories and photographs through electronic media beamed across the world by CNN and other satellite news networks. News reports accompanied by digital photographs were available instantaneously to Internet users on the World Wide Web (WWW), 3 and discussed ad infinitum on Internet user-groups and discussion groups. 4 Concerned Internet users established links with the inhabitants of Sarajevo through “Sarajevo on-line,” a World Wide Web site allowing Internet users to pose questions directly to identified students (whose photographs and biographies were featured on the net) who posted answers regularly. 5 Action alerts were sent across the Internet directly to concerned observers by groups like Amnesty International, which led to letter writing campaigns and popular pressure on Western government officials to act. 6 When political developments were announced, computer network users could call up full texts of the Dayton accords or NATO Press releases. 7 Those who wished could track the daily developments of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, with full access to documents, Security Council resolutions, rules of procedure and evidence, case files, press releases, and texts of indictments. 8 In the same time that it had taken to produce the single 1914 Carnegie report, a seemingly infinite stream of words had emerged which brought the Balkan conflict of the information age to life.

From the perspective of the international human rights movement, this is a remarkable transformation. Accurate and timely information is an indispensable tool and an essential precondition for effective responsive action and the promotion of human rights, whether by organizations, individuals, governments, or international institutions. One of the critical functions which international human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch perform is as collectors, filterers, translators, and presenters of information regarding alleged violations. The first essential step towards processing information is, [End Page 706] of course, gathering it. Groups must then determine whether the data received is trustworthy enough to serve as the basis for further investigation, public statement, or other responsive action. As Peter Willets has asserted: “[NGO] personnel, particularly at the leadership level, become professionals in the use of information. . . . Processing of information is always a major activity of pressure groups and often is overwhelmingly the most important activity.” 9 Human rights NGOs use information to garner concern regarding and popular support for various causes and translate that concern and support into activities designed to protect embattled individuals or groups, end invidious abuses of authority and power, and forestall potential violations of human rights. Information imparted by these groups also plays a crucial role in developing popular concern and generating political pressure for action in response to a particular situation. Tools such as the fax...