Digital Rights are Human Rights

The Digital Freedom Fund counted down to Human Rights Day 2020 with a series of short posts. Each post was written by a guest author and illustrates how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies in the digital age. The full series can be viewed here.

The right to be free from torture

UDHR Article 5

The unsettling images brought to mind when torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (CIDT) are mentioned tend to involve the victim and perpetrator being together in the same room.  These abuses are commonly understood to take place face to face, with perpetrator and victim in close physical proximity to one another, for motives that include revenge, sadism, or interrogations designed to collect intelligence.

Despite these conventional understandings, the proliferation of digital technology in our daily lives has shown that these abuses can happen remotely.

Although definitions of torture and CIDT can be disputed, guidance is available. The United Nations’ Convention Against Torture, which came into force in 1987, defines torture first by stating that it is “severe pain or suffering”, specifying that this can be physical or, indeed, it can be mental.  The key to understanding that torture and CIDT can happen by digital means is that severe mental suffering can constitute torture.

Victims can be reached remotely using social media or emails for instance, on devices they carry with them all day long.  Mental suffering, sometimes severe enough to meet the “severity” threshold for torture, can be caused through persistent online harassment that targets the victim on the basis of protected characteristics such as gender or age, online threats, accusations, blackmail, or a combination of these and more.

There may be times when those who are inclined to carry out torture can fulfil this element of the definition through digital means.  There are no barriers to the other elements of the definition being met through digital means, namely that it is intentional, is carried out for specific purposes such as punishment, and is carried out by, at the instigation of, or with the consent of, someone acting in an official capacity.

In light of how digitisation has changed how we live, the common understanding of torture, and of CIDT, must undergo a significant shift in order to better prevent these serious violations.

By Dr Samantha Newbery, Reader in International Security at the University of Salford.