31 May 2023

A panel of experts sat down recently at the Democracy Technology Convention in Poland, to tackle just this question and offer some solutions. The discussion benefited from the insights and expertise of EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore, Director of Transparencia Brazil, Juliana Sakai and Courteney Mukoyi, Founder of the Justice Code Foundation Trust.

The problem, as Eamon Gilmore explains, is “a decline in democracy and a very serious rise in authoritarianism, right across the world.” The relationship between democracy and human rights is very close. Gilmore argues that threats to democracy often begin with attacks on civil society and then on the media. Intimidation of the media typically begins informally with political parties or regimes threatening or intimidating journalists, often online.  

Reality check needed

What’s more there is often widespread support for the populist agendas of those in government, explains Gilmore. He recently spoke with members of the Ugandan government about the new legislation criminalising homosexuality with the death penalty. The votes in favour of this legislation were almost unanimous. “I think we have to have a reality check about what is happening – they’re doing it because it’s popular,” warns Gilmore. 

Similar levels of approval were enjoyed by former Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, whose 6-year long war on drugs defied respect for human rights and rule of law. “This is quite astonishing,” says Gilmore. Yet, for those like Juliana Sakai, who have been fighting to maintain civil society spaces and open government in Brazil for over 20 years, it is all too familiar. Working with other civil society organisations, they used open data and technology to help improve transparency in local and national government. 

No guarantees

Yet the creation of online and offline spaces for dialogue between citizens and government does not guarantee progress. Speaking of the Bolsonaro years, Sakai recalls that, “Even the spaces that were maintained were empty.” A lot of councils were closed and there was direct harassment of journalists and civil society members, especially with regards to social and environmental issues as well as gun control. So dialogue was difficult, and Sakai and her colleagues had to find ways to connect with government officials who were still willing to work with them in order to use the institutionalized spaces as best they could.

For Courteney Mukoyi, first-hand experience of human rights violation at a young age, caused him to forego a career as a lawyer in order to create and promote a human rights app, called Astrea Justice. It is designed to document human rights abuses as well as educate and assist users to get help when their rights are violated. “When your rights are personally violated to the extent that it leaves physical and psychological scars in your life. Then you are forced to act. This happened to me when I was between twelve and eighteen years old during the much-contested elections in Zimbabwe in 2008” explains Mukoyi.

The digital divide

The young Zimbabwean is very positive about the role that technology can play in countering human rights abuses and saving democracy across Africa. He is particularly enthusiastic about mobile apps. However, he is also aware of the problem of the digital divide. Mobile phone penetration is high. But data is very expensive so those in rural areas are not easily able to access apps like Astrea Justice. The solution: Mukoyi and his team made their platform available via a Whats app chat-bot. Whats app accounts for more than 44% of internet use in Zimbabwe. This approach allowed them to impact a large number of users.  

Gilmore agrees that the digital divide is not something that affects only those in rural areas. He highlights the fact that for older generations, particularly in Europe, where ageing populations are becoming ever more common, a lack of expertise and familiarity with the online world means that many feel left behind. “A lot of people, my generation and older, are increasingly being cut out of participation in normal life because they’re just not up to speed with technological developments” warns Gilmore.

Technology to the rescue? 

The growing number of people for whom technology is increasingly accessible offers them the opportunity to benefit from progress made in other countries. “The beauty of these technologies is that they are scalable” enthuses Mukoyi. He and his team have recently been in talks with citizens in South Africa who are interested in working with them on an AI platform they’re designing for elections. With national elections coming up in South Africa in 2024, this platform would provide citizens with a means of observing the elections stage-by-stage. They are also in talks with a like-minded organisation in Nigeria. However, Mukoyi does highlight the importance of taking context into account when implementing platforms like these.

Sakai is more cautious. Initial optimism about the use of technology to further democracy has been tempered with the realisation that “technology isn’t only used for good, it can be used for anything” she maintains. Sakai points out how the extreme right In Brazil and across the world, have frequently used technology against democracy, in an effort to weaken it. “There are still a lot of gaps that we have to fill to really protect human rights in digital terms and advance transparency on the platforms.” she warns. 


For Sakai, one of the most important solutions is the creation of coalitions of like-minded organisations in order to optimise resources and concentrate efforts to withstand ongoing attacks on democracy and human rights. “It’s so important to work together” she insists, “you can do a lot of things by yourself but you can go so much further when you’re working with dozens of other organisations.”

Gilmore sees solutions in making democracy and politics more relevant to the daily lives of citizens. This is best done, he suggests, at local government and even city level. “The work that I did in local government I think was probably more relevant for people’s immediate lives than a lot of the work that I did in the national parliament.” 

Some have even suggested that cities might be best placed to take the lead in progressing democracies when national governments are failing to do so. For example, cities in Poland have stood up to the curtailment of human rights by the national government. While Mukoyi notes strong divides in Africa between the democratic and the authoritarian in urban and rural areas, respectively. Indeed populist regimes globally typically find strong support bases in rural areas.

Gilmore agrees that there is a tendency to choose the short-term stability offered by populist regimes, over the less certain results offered by democracy. Yet history attests to the benefits of saving democracy in the long term.

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