Just as it has evolved every other element of global social order, media technology is impacting human rights.

That fact is among the major trends identified in the U.S. State Department’s recently released “Country Reports on Human Rights 2014.” Some trends in the report are durable, like repressive regimes using regressive laws and violence to stifle dissent — increasingly in the name of combatting terrorism or foreign threats — so the annual analysis has its usual, yet useful, litany of human rights violations by governments. But beyond that, “2014 will be remembered as much for atrocities committed by nonstate actors,” the report states.

Regardless or their affiliation, perpetrators are using media technology to carry out human rights violations. Yet the same tools also are being used to combat the practice. Civil society organizations (CSOs) in particular “are successfully advocating for the protection of rights online and developing technologies to enable the exercise of freedom of expression and to call out human rights abuses,” the report states.

Several CSOs fighting the good fight on human rights are based in Minnesota, and they have experienced the human rights-tech nexus up close. In Jordan, a haven for fleeing Iraqis and Syrians, Liyam Eloul, a psychotherapist and trainer for the Center for Victims of Torture, has witnessed tech terrorize even after the torture supposedly stops. Some clients still receive threatening texts and calls, Eloul said from Amman. In addition, she said, some clients have received video footage of family members who are dead, bloodied, scarred or emaciated from torture or imprisonment. In some parts of the region, families have heard the screams of loved ones being tortured during ransom calls, and one man received video of his wife being raped.

All this can “deeply” re-victimize clients, Eloul said. “It takes a lot of work to build a sense of safety, and something like that makes them feel like their victimizers still have access to them.” This increases isolation from family members and the community. And because the Middle East is a “much more interdependent culture, community is a very important and real sense of identity and support. So to have that cut off hinders their ability to keep in contact with important family and community members.”

And even those who do reach out, Eloul added, often only talk for one minute for fear of phone lines being tapped. This also extends to social media, which many clients avoid so perpetrators can’t track them and their families or their political beliefs.

Asylum clients of the Advocates for Human Rights also have been victimized, said Robin Phillips, executive director of the Minneapolis organization. Tech tools have been used to track and monitor some who have fled, for instance. And, Phillips added, even infrequent interceptions of cellphone communication can have a lasting chilling effect.

Yet reflective of the State Department report, both Eloul and Phillips said that technology also has advanced human rights efforts.

“Social media and tech have been an immense boon to the humanitarian system as a whole in terms of being able to distribute cash assistance, or let people know what’s going on, spread information and help family members reconnect with each other,” said Eloul. And it helps her colleagues at the Center for Victims of Torture keep in touch with clients, which otherwise can be challenging in urban Amman. The same digital trail used to torment also can be used as evidence. Eloul said that this can be empowering for victims, but to what extent depends on the state of their recovery.

Phillips said technology has made the world smaller — and faster. “Human rights violations happen when they happen, and we can be much more responsive when we have these different avenues to communicate,” she said. So some Tanzanians trained through Skype were better equipped to document police brutality against the LGBT community, for instance. And local members of the Oromo community used tools from the Advocates for Human Rights website to try to improve conditions in Ethiopia.

Phillips said that human rights work up to the early 1990s was mostly focused on exposing what was done in secret. Tech’s ubiquity today reduces secrecy, she said, citing cellphone photos and video from Tahrir Square as an example. “Ultimately, time will tell if we’ll be able to be more effective in improving human rights conditions when we focus more on fixing the systems and not necessarily so much energy into exposing,” she said.

Justice is not a straight line. And tech’s effect isn’t, either. So the digital dichotomy on human rights may itself become a durable dynamic in the State Department’s report.

Eloul, who works on the front lines, has mixed feelings about the overall influence of media tech on human rights. “Overall the good probably outdoes the bad,” she said. “But it depends on the day you ask me.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.