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AI, Human Rights and the Rise of the Global South

As the current global geopolitical space becomes less friendly to Human Rights1, are there potential offsetting trends supporting them? Yes, but… it will require initiatives from the Global South for AI data-driven policies supportive of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), demonstrating the value of SDGs and Human Rights combined.

UN Development Goals and Human Rights: A Conflicted History

Following WWII, a network of international institutions was created to bring financial stability and promote recovery and development, primarily through “foreign aid” and conditional loans tied to strategic goals. By the 1990s, it had become clear that this was not as successful as hoped. This led to the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, which adopted a “Millennium Declaration” committing signatories to target eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) through 2015. However, the relationship between Human Rights and the MDGs was uncertain from the beginning.

The 2000 Declaration recognized links between Human Rights and Development Goals, but the final MDGs themselves largely abandoned that connection to make their adoption more politically and economically attractive. “Human Rights” were intentionally not a significant component of the 2000 MDGs. The concept that Human Rights could create conditions for achieving Development Goals was slow to arrive.

Over time the MDGs came to be seen as honored more in words than in deeds, with only limited benefits for Human Rights. However, there was a growing call for Human Rights to be placed at the core of a post-2015 development agenda of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the following 15 years. “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (2015) challenged the UN to ensure the SDGs were implemented in accordance with international Human Rights law.

Human Rights, Development Goals, and Well-Being

The links between human dignity, expressed as Human Rights and human Well-being, expressed as Development Goals, were initially not well appreciated. Human Rights are said to apply to all people at all places in all times, without exception. Development Goals are specific, situational, have a defined time frame, quantifiable metrics, a restricted scope, and can accommodate exceptions. This initially led some in the Human Rights communities to shy away from mixing them, fearing dilution of Human Rights’ moral imperatives. “Well-being” is a widely accepted non-instrumental, non-ideological standard akin to the overall quality of life, which has aspects of both.2

The 2030 Agenda, SDGs and Human Rights

Many now see Human Rights and the SDGs as interdependent and mutually reinforcing, constituting distinct but converging commitments and obligations. The SDGs can be seen as part of a process of realizing Human Rights in the context of overall Well-being. The seventeen new SDGs embody objective targets creating opportunities for identification of common interests (e.g., health, climate, water, hunger, etc.), which can lead to collaborations for mutual benefits.

The “Global South”: AI Binds UN Development Goals To Human Rights

Global politics are moving back towards a tri-polar world: The West (U.S./EU bloc), the East (China/Russia bloc) and the South (multi-centric). All seek AI-driven “big” data flows for economic and security reasons. The West and East have contesting perspectives which are leading to delinking and data localization as divergent cross-border data governance policies are shaped. Based on their numbers, the Global South may strongly influence the parameters of these policies to promote increased data flows through collaboration around the SDGs.

The Global South has strong incentives to promote the SDGs and has significant leverage in multi-lateral negotiations on data governance policies. There are, however, counter-vailing forces. One is a drift towards various forms of authoritarianism, which is essentially anti-liberal, anti-western and anti-Human Rights. The other is a post-colonial struggle for equality, fairness, distributional equity and social justice. It emphasizes the “Right to Development,” reaching out to the most vulnerable first and leaving no one behind. It mixes Development theory and Human Rights approaches to achieve Well-being. This conforms exactly neither to the “Western” nor “Eastern” models. Its motivation is pragmatic, as the SDGs’ benefits inure largely to the Global South. These conversations, which may not fully please the West nor the East, will likely come to a head around the UN’s “Global Digital Compact” in 2024. 

Lessons for Human Rights Learned from 23 Years of UN Development Goals

Looking at this history through the lens of current events, what do we see?

  • Human Rights are not self-executing.
  • Human Rights are not an economic policy
  • Human Rights are often politically shaped
  • Support for traditional Human Rights is declining
  • Linkage of Human Rights and SDGs has fluctuated
  • SDGs provide tangible goals and metrics complementary to Human Rights
  • SDGs and Human Rights together can produce quantifiable positive outcomes

What policy conclusions does this situation imply?

  • A strong, friendly Global South is in the interest of the West, even if it does not fully adopt its model.
  • Support for Human Rights will be driven by the centrality of AI-driven data flows and the demand of the Global South for promoting AI data for development.
  • The “West” (U.S./EU bloc) should support the SDGs and Global South initiatives towards Well-Being and for data governance policies opening data trade and minimizing data localization.

All of the above is obviously painted with a broad brush to illuminate the Global South’s key role and AI in Human Rights going forward.

  1. RD Taylor, “Can Digital Human Rights be Sustained in an Evolving UN?” CircleID, May 21, 2023. 
  2. RD Taylor, “The Future of Information Policy: Preparing for Transformational Change.” Chapter 8: Research Handbook on Information Policy, Alistair Duff, ed., Elgar Publishing, 2021. 
  1. The above post was previously published on the IITF Human Rights in the Digital Domain Blog.

By Richard Taylor, Palmer Chair and Professor of Telecommunications Studies and Law Emeritus, Penn State University

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