Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

We live in an increasingly connected and globalized world. While digitalization is making the world even smaller,old challenges to human rights are becoming amplified. In Turkey, President Erdogan is silencing and detaining those who are perceived as opponents. China is being accused of ‘genocide’ for its treatment of the Uyghurs minority. A military coup in Myanmar ended up in a bloodbath. Another escalation of violence has struck Gaza and Israel. Worldwide, the health of democracy is facing a difficult time, and the Covid-19 crisis has not been of any help. As of 2021, there are 57 authoritarian regimes around the world, while the number of full democracies is only 23.

In this bleak scenario, the European Union is trying to reap potential benefits of globalization while complying with its commitment to protecting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law worldwide. Human rights are at the heart of EU relations with other countries and regions, but the need for establishing and maintaining stable and reliable relations with non-democratic third countries can easily conflict with EU values. Yet, respect for basic rights should always be a primary consideration in all EU external policies.

Within the EU, several Member States are uncomfortable with sanctions against countries that violate human rights. The balance between condemning human rights violations and maintaining commercial and diplomatic ties with countries responsible for those violations is delicate.  For instance, Mario Draghi, Prime Minister of Italy, recently called Erdogan a “dictator.”, but also stressed the necessity for cooperation. The question is, at what price?

Rule of law, transparency, and human rights should not be traded with economic interests. If the EU continue to uphold and promote human rights while building external relations, it will keep a common front with those countries that have no intention of making concessions, such as the United States, with its renewed interest in upholding human rights in light of Bidens election.

In the current geopolitical situation, then, is it clear that Europe has a key role; it is the delicate tip of the balance between a polarized world where human rights and economic interest are exchange goods in a trade war. Several countries, such as Turkey, China, and Russia, are treating rights as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ to economic progress. It is important then, to understand that democracy cannot be a collateral victim of progress and that the negotiating power of the EU is a strong tool to ensure that this does not happen.

On the contrary, progress on human rights could be one of the factors always considered when implementing EU external policies and reaching agreements.

Furthermore, new challenges lie ahead. Digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and digital identification tools represent big opportunities for development and more efficient and easy access to public services. However, several threats are lurking in the dark of the web.

Some countries are using these tools to systematically violate rights such as the right to freedom, and the right to privacy. [GL1] Therefore, it is also important to sign global treaties on artificial intelligence and other high-level digital technologies to incorporate ethical principles and human rights, accountability, and protection of civilians. We should not let technology be a weapon in the hand of military dictators or tyrants of any sort.

The new EU regulation on Artificial Intelligence takes some steps into banning “indiscriminate surveillance”, among the steps to promote use of AI in the name of trust and fundamental rights’ respect. However, the draft specifies that such bans will not apply when carried out “to safeguard public security.’’

Technologies such as AI are a partially unexplored territory that will require further investment in the promotion, consideration, and application of human rights. Key, now, is fostering citizens’ trust in such technologies to obtain economical and societal advancement. To do this, boundaries need to be established that keep technologies safe from threat, but do not undermine the innovation and advancement that they aim to promote.