United Nations, Microsoft leaders discuss human rights at UC Berkeley

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The United Nations high commissioner for human rights and the president of Microsoft discussed the role of technology and business in promoting human rights and freedom of expression at a UC Berkeley event Thursday.

The event, which featured high commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein from the United Nations and Microsoft president Brad Smith, answered both previously submitted and audience-prompted questions as part of the Haas School of Business’ Dean’s Speaker Series. Al Hussein and Smith urged both the business and international communities to get involved in ensuring the protection of human rights and free speech.

“The space for dissent is rapidly shrinking,” Al Hussein said. “Censorship is on the rise.”

Smith said modern technologies have allowed for people to use their right to freedom of expression in ways that cause huge problems for humanity. He added that cyberattacks in international politics have become a recent threat.

Propaganda, such as the kind Smith alleged was used to influence the 2016 United States presidential election, and censorship are currently the two enemies of free expression, according to Smith.

“This is the best of times and the worst of times, at the same time,” Smith said. “It is a new era of invisible weapons, and we need to take it seriously.”

Technology also has the potential to identify and document cases promoting human rights, Smith said. He stated that smartphone videos, for example, can document abuse and change debates on race and police in the United States.

In response to a question about the tension between freedom of expression and the desire to protect marginalized communities, Al Hussein said hate speech becomes dangerous when it is circulated by a particularly “dense” group.

Al Hussein added he has no objection to legally binding companies to follow human rights laws, so long as the stipulated binds follow good “guiding principles.”

“The human rights causes of the world need more money,” Smith said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Smith has called for the world’s governments to commit to a “Digital Geneva Convention” to protect civilians on the internet in times of peace, similar to how international governments cooperated after World War II to adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians in times of war.

In the past, Al Hussein has also been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, saying Trump’s repeated denunciations of some media outlets as “fake news” could incite violence and have potentially dangerous consequences outside of the United States.

Chloe Poynton, an event attendee and co-founder of Article One, a sustainability and human rights consulting firm, said the actions discussed during the event were exact examples of the way businesses should develop. Poynton added, however, that the speakers were not as supportive of legally binding companies to human rights laws as she had expected.

“States need to legislate for human rights,” Poynton said.

Contact Henry Tolchard at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @htolchard.