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Interview mit Frank La Rue

Interview mit Frank La Rue

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Frank La Rue is currently serving as the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, a position he has held since August 2008. He is also the founder of the Center for Legal Action for Human Rights (CALDH), based in Washington, D.C. and Guatemala, which became the first Guatemalan NGO to bring cases of human rights violations to the Inter-American System. La Rue also brought the first genocide case against the military dictatorship in Guatemala. As a human rights activist, his name was nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize committee in 2004.

Frank La Rue: “The Internet Will Prevail”

You have called the Internet a catalyst for change: Is the Internet a good thing for human rights?

I think the Internet is very important for human rights. It is a catalyst for change because of the strength it has in communicating massively in real time. I have mentioned that Internet is like all new technologies of communication - from the printing press of Gutenberg through radio frequencies of Marconi to television and broadcasting all the way to the Internet - every time there was a technical lead in communications, the messages got further and further and to more people. What I have marked as a big difference for the Internet is the fact that it cannot only break geographic boundaries beyond what telecommunications can do, it also erases frontiers from country to nations and can reach around the world in real time, but more importantly yet is the fact that it can also generate interactive communication; because it is not a uni-dimensional communication like all the other mass media, whether the printed press or telecommunication that goes into one direction. Internet generates a dialogue between people that are in communication so that you can receive not only an immediate reaction to the person emitting the communication but also [ensure] an immediate dialogue between individuals receiving the communication and [thus] you generate this interactive dynamic.

It is this quality that makes the Internet different in a sense that it is an element of participation. I think citizenship is strengthened by the use of the Internet, as is transparency because you can access public information, and have the devices to organize, associate, and mobilize peacefully. So here’s where the Internet has played a heroic role in the Arab Spring; I always insist that the Internet per se does not generate change, these were no Internet revolutions - after this has been said - it is the people who generate change. But it is also very clear that the Internet did play a key role in this process, and that it was a major facilitator.

Now, with regards to exercising rights, I [insist] in my report to the General Assembly that access should be a major issue, in terms of the Internet, that it is key to have access to the Internet. Using the Internet is key [to ensure] several rights. One of them is freedom of expression in its double dimensions: access to information of all types, which enables people to build opinions and exercise freedom of opinion; but also to develop their own informed decisions. Secondly, it is access to public information which strengthens transparency and democracy, and the trust in state institutions, and in the other dimension: it is a key instrument or a key medium for freedom of expression, for anyone to present their views, their ideas, their information, their opinions, to select a group of people, or to the broad public in general. And i think this has gone way beyond any other medium before, in terms of the scope and the range - with the possibility of an interactive communication.

The second right, that i think is essential, is the right to education. I believe education in the future will be linked to the use of the Internet, as an investigative tool, but also as a moving library, a virtual library, but as well as the possibility of writing, collecting, sharing, information. Or the fact of receiving online classes, online education processes.

The third right that I would stress is the right to free association and assembly as well as peaceful mobilization. That does not depend on the Internet, but the Internet becomes an essential tool in the world of today to organize people and to convene and mobilize peacefully. It becomes a crucial element for exercising these rights in the multi-cultural dimension of the world. I have worked with UNESCO on this. I think this is key for the possibility of all peoples to express and present their language, their values, their traditions, and their culture in general and to re-produce them. And this is very important to generate a better understanding in the world of this multi-cultural nations, the UNESCO constitution, which was written two years even before the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights], it establishes that it is an institution built for the promotion of peace in the world, to facilitating the free flow of ideas and understanding of peoples around the world.

Finally, the last right that I would like to mention: there is the question of the right to development. Today, I think the Internet will be connected to all development issues, economic and social, and it is key for every state to guarantee access to Internet to the most remote rural villages, to be able to allow them to participate in the original national development plan, as well as for different sectors of the population, minorities , the different groups (minorities that could have been religious, racial or national minorities) that have normally been discriminated may have now access to communication and all the elements of development. So i think for women, raising the voices of women, and all the gender issues and the gender equity. This is an experience I have had in my home country. We have been training young indigenous Mayan women in the use of Internet to equalize their possibilities and their access to education. [The Internet is an imporant] element in [overcoming] discrimination and [ensuring] gender equity and equal opportunities.

Do you think that - in addition to the rights you have just mentioned - there are other substantial human rights protection gaps online?

I just mentioned these rights because they are, I believe, more directly related to the benefits of the Internet but in reality I think the Internet is a crucial instrument for human rights defenders and for all people. So in general, the Internet is related to all HR. And therefore, it is mechanism for the defense and the struggle for HR and democracy around the world, so i honestly believe that it is related to all rights. I just highlighted the few that were more specifically relevant. But for instance, in terms of the justice system, Internet facilitates the publicity of the justice system, making the justice system more public, facilitates the rural demand for justice, facilitates access to information as a device for truth, all of which are crucial to eliminate impunity. I would believe that the Internet is also a major instrument in the struggle against impunity.

Do you think the the current HR infrastructure is enough as it is right now or do we need a new HR treaty with regard to the Internet?

I don’t think we need new legislation, i think the Internet can be understood under the principles and regulations of human rights that we already have - specifically under freedom of expression. Every time there was a technological development this was question was asked. But I don’t think that it is a matter of new legislation, rather it is a matter of re-interpreting the international standards of human rights and and apply them to the Internet.

You mentioned the example of using the Internet to enhance access to knowledge and education for indigenous Mayan women in Guatemala. During your time as a UN Special Rapporteur, what best practice models did you encounter with regard to implementing HR on the Internet?

Well, let me tell you first one concern I have in terms of access, now that you ask. If you speak about access from a European perspective for instance, or a North American perspective, is not always understood because access to the Internet is considered a given, everyone can either have Internet in their home, in the office or go to an Internet cafe, so it doesn’t seem as a major problem. But for me it is. I divide access into two categories: first, access to content without censorship and with in light of the principle of plurality and diversity, and, second, access to infrastructure and quality communication which means software, hardware, connectivity and all the rest.

Obviously, the ideal is to have both. Many countries, however, have only one or the other. Some countries are developing connectivity and they have discovered the importance of the Internet but limit the content available for the subscribers. And we all know what countries those are. On the other hand, other counties are very open in regard to the content but are very limited in terms of the access their population has to the Internet. This is a problem. So my feeling is that we should try to reach out in this regard and ensure that universal access, like all rights, is ensured to everyone.

In Africa many communities do not have electricity at all or even portable water, but they have instigated interesting experiments with mobile phones and cellular communication. They have made a relationship between the Internet and mobile phones. These can be re-charged with photo cells or other mechanisms and this has given the communities an opportunity to accesst the Internet; very remote communities in very poor areas have access to the Internet in this way.

This whole process, which I welcome, started with communities radios. Many radios were transmitting through cellular phones, because people didn’t have radio, the equipment for radio or electricity, but they could receive the messages in audio in their mobile phones. So that is very important.

In the case of Latin America, in my own country, Guatemala, we have had important experiences of intensifying Internet training for women, Mayan women in particular. The results have been excellent. We were not aware in the past that the Internet was deepening the gender gap. It was very clear that young men were getting all the opportunity to develop knowledge of the Internet, either formally in the education sector or informally in cybercafes or with friends. But young women have been excluded from that. So we discovered by training women we were offsetting the imbalance and we were able to generate some form of gender equity with very good results.

Further, in Uruguay, they have a project in coordination with UNDP that has this programme “one laptop per child.” Uruguay has a relatively small population, a big country in size, but a small population, and it the government has decided to give every single child in primary school a little laptop, the ones that are very cheap, very accessible, very resistant, with the sole commitment on the part of the children to regularly go to classes. With that programme they elevated the school participating rates of children to approximately 95%. So today, almost all children in Uruguay go to primary school. If Uruguay can sustain this for one generation, they will have the highest level of education in Latin America, in the whole continent. So these are wonderful experiences where [ICTs] can be [used].

We also have tragic experiences where countries that have high technological development but because of economic polarisation or social discrimination or racial discrimination, big sectors of the population don’t have access, and this is an issue that we should face. Finland, by the way, seems to be a country with the highest level of connectivity, I think they have reached almost 100%.

Let’s look into the future a bit, you mentioned overcoming discrimination in content and bridging the gender gap, but what are the issues that you consider to be the most pressing: ensuring infrastructure or ensuring content?

For me, if we had to select one issue worldwide, it would be access. Access to content and access to connectivity and infrastructure.

In other words, making sure that those people who don’t have access yet gain access and that countries where access exists, but is filtered, make their filters human rights-sensible.

Exactly. The question of access to content means eliminating all forms of state censorship that does not meet the three level test [provided by law, necessary in a democratic society, proportional].

There is this discussion on the Internet Governance Principles from different actors, that propose different models how to proceed with Internet governance. What do you see as the best way to go?

That is an open discussion. Some principles focus on intellectual property, where I believe that some laws protecting intellectual property (which i think should be protected), but some laws are too stringent and become really a limitation to freedom of expression like what happened with SOPA and PIPA in the United States, and which were also not accepted by President Obama, and I made a statement jointly with the Rapporteur of the OES on that. So i think this is the time to engage in a debate … in Europe in France there were 3 strikes and out, the laws there, there’s a series of laws and my position is if the people defending intellectual property go too far and become too stringent and too harsh in the sanctions, number one they will affect the freedom of expression and number two there will be a negative reaction toward the issue of intellectual property. So i think this is an open dialogue, i believe there should be a multi-stakeholder dialogue to set the principles and the record straight, and to be able to solve that. And the other issue that I presented in my report is the question of access is all areas, especially in the poorest and rural areas that is un-concluded issue. And finally what you were talking about the governance. Who governs the internt? and here there is an open debate, which i think is not settled yet, some countries are, this is a debate that goes from the WSIS to the ITU, some countries are pushing it to the ITU be the regulating body, other countries disagree because they say the ITU has the representation of many members but not have balance between those who actually generate the technology and those that use it but everyone the same, and it becomes more of a political vote than a technical vote. In the meantime, i think as a very temporary solution, you have the IGF (the Internet Governance Forum) which i think has worked very well as an open forum, probably better than expected, it was designed as for five years, and now it has been extended and it was initially a forum for technical debates and progressively the issue of human rights has grown, to the extent that i have participated in several plenary sessions, so i believe that this is a crucial forum but the problem is that clearly it does not make decisions, it is only a forum of debate, and information, which is good, but eventually and inevitably the issue will come up again of who will govern internet. Some people have the position that there should be nothing, that there should be that let the internet flow with the technology and the users and the broad public will determine the future. I think it’s too soon to decide.

What should the Internet of the future should look like?

I believe the Internet is provoking fear in politicians and governments, which is very tragic. And the Arab Spring actually increased that. So, my feeling is that we’re looking at two mechanisms of censorship or limitation of freedom of expression over the Internet. One is the progressive criminalization and the use of penal law against users, which is why there’s a harassment of journalists and prosecution of journalists who go online as well as bloggers. Many bloggers around the world are in jail, and what you have is the use of old crimes, like defamation being misused or more specific crimes by country, or “lèse majesté” in Thailand or blasphemy laws in Europe or different criminal laws. I do believe there are limitations to the freedom of expression and I believe some expressions should be criminalized, like child pornography, but I think that it is easy to criminalize what are legitimate expressions of dissent or criticism or opinion.

There’s a trend to limit and to criminalize which I am worried about. We should stop it. One of the calls that I am going to make in Geneva in June is to decriminalize the professional activites of journalism especially, but also to decriminalize citizen journalists as much as possible and to ensure freedom of expression over the Internet and freedom of expression in general for the press.

And the second issue is the increase of violence against journalists.

Well, first let me say that the increase of mechanisms, technical mechanisms of censorship, the monitoring, filtering and blocking in the Internet which is now being developed by many governments in some cases under the excuse of national security and that is the rationale and the logic, but obviously it has a political implication.

I believe in national security. I think national security should be protected but i think it’s also used as an excuse to censor dissent and criticism. And finally the increase of violence, especially against journalists, which is one of my concerns, there is more and more violence around the world and i think there has to be a call for the decriminalization like i said but also for the abolition of any form of violence against journalists in any form.

Any final empowerment message, some positive outlook?

Yes, the positive message is that whatever states do to block, filter, censor the Internet, they will inevitably fail, because the Internet is not only such a powerful messenger but the technology also evolves so rapidly that states and state institutions will not be able to keep pace with the the broad public and the users. So my feeling is that the Internet will inevitably prevail as the open space of communication and free flow of ideas between peoples of the world. In Spanish I will say that Internet has to be seen as the Plaza Pública, the public square, the public place, where we all meet, relate, socialize, exchange views and communicate.

Thank you so much. Muchas Gracias. For your time. Un placer

Sherry Basta
Sebastian Haselbeck
Sherry Basta
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