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Digital rights are vital to addressing tech-facilitated trafficking and sexual abuse

Equality Now’s Global Lead on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Tsitsi Matekaire, presented the following remarks at Technological challenges and solutions in combatting trafficking of women and girls in overlapping emergencies, a side event in the margins of CSW 67 jointly organized by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR), UN Women, UNODC, Equality Now and Coalition Against Trafficking in Women March 8th, 2023.

In 1948, the international community adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a remarkable response to the horrors of that time and signaled the determination to build a better world. 

In the Declaration, the founding members of the United Nations clearly set out the basic human rights which belong to us all, whatever our background, whatever our sex or race, and whatever our country, simply because of our common humanity. 

It powerfully proclaims in Article 4 that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Over the years, international human rights laws such as CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Palermo Protocol have reiterated the obligations of governments to address human trafficking and exploitation. 

Today, as we are approaching the 75th anniversary of the Declaration this December,  I believe its authors would be frustrated that their ambition of a world free of slavery and exploitation is so far from being realized. In fact, today, human trafficking is one of the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprises, and women and girls remain the majority of its victims. And in this digital age, trafficking is growing exponentially.  

But there is hope.

In 2018, the UN Human Rights Council affirmed that “the same human rights that people have offline must be protected online”. It follows that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW, CRC, and Palermo Protocol apply in the digital space. 

With the internet and digital technology evolving so rapidly, governments must stay ahead of the curve and provide decisive leadership in applying existing international human rights standards in the digital space. From the genesis of the UN,  International human rights standards have withstood the test of time and can certainly push back the scourge of digital harms. National laws must be reformed, adapted, and enacted to reflect and address the realities of the digital world. 

As we have heard today, those who are most profoundly affected by tech-enabled trafficking and other online crimes are the people, groups, and communities with the least power and privilege. Women and girls, Indigenous and racial minorities, people with disabilities, and those living in neglected communities around the world bear the brunt of inequality and discrimination. They are denied opportunities, resources, and dignity, which makes them vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. And those with power exploit and profit from their vulnerability. 

Tackling vulnerability and inequality

As we come up with solutions, we must not lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, we are faced with the urgent need to tackle the root causes of trafficking in women and girls. Dismantling the system of inequality and discrimination must be at the core of our strategy to prevent and respond to trafficking in women and girls in both physical and digital spaces. Ensuring equality in the law and its implementation for all people across our societies is a fundamental pillar in tackling trafficking and exploitation. 

Today’s discussion also challenges us to look more closely at how the digital space is structured and governed, the role and accountability of the players in this space, how we interact as humans,  and how we exercise our human rights in that space. 

Digital spaces remain largely unregulated.

There are no universal rules for those who design, operate, and profit from digital networks and services, nor is there an effective way to ensure that common standards designed to guide and protect our digital interactions are universally and equitably upheld. The lines of accountability for technology companies are unclear, nor are they universal when they exist. In this context of piecemeal and fragmented approaches, online misogyny and harms such as tech-enabled trafficking are thriving. 

To achieve universal equality of safety, freedom, and dignity in our digital future and stop digital harms, we need a universal approach to defining, upholding, and advancing digital rights – for everyone. 

We urgently need to lay the foundations for a safe, secure, and equal digital world for our generation and future ones. 

The UN Global Digital Compact

The proposed UN Global Digital Compact is an important first step in getting all UN member states to agree on shared principles for an ‘open, free and secure digital future for all.’ Globally, the conversations among governments, civil society, international bodies, and others are moving towards this goal. 

For example, my organization Equality Now and Women Leading in AI has launched the Alliance for Universal Digital Rights, a diverse global network to champion digital rights for all.

I have hope and optimism that we have a global movement moving in the right direction, and with political will and our collective efforts, we can turn the tide on tech-enabled trafficking and exploitation.