Human rights and ethics have a close relationship, but they are defined and implemented differently.
What are human rights?#
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1.)
Human rights are the rights and freedoms that are inherent to every human being. They include rights like the rights to life, to equality before the law, to freedom from discrimination, to privacy, to education, and to health.
Human rights are universal: they apply to every human being, without exception. Human rights are inalienable: they cannot be taken away or limited, except under very specific and defined circumstances. Human rights are indivisible and interdependent: we cannot have some rights without others.
What is human rights law?#
Human rights law is made up of conventions and covenants - legal instruments - that are signed by countries. These instruments are legally binding: this means that all countries who sign up to them take on legal duties and obligations. These include the obligations to:
respect: to not do anything that violates human rights;
protect: to ensure that individuals and groups do not have their human rights abused or violated;
fulfil: to take action to make sure that individuals and groups are able to enjoy their human rights.
Some human rights law is made at global level, by the United Nations. There are nine core human rights instruments. They include general instruments on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as instruments that cover specific people, such as children or people with disabilities, or specific topics, such as torture or racial discrimination. Each of these instruments is overseen by a committee of experts: a ‘treaty body.’ Every few years, each country who has signed a human rights instrument has to report to the treaty body on how well they are implementing the treaty. The treaty body makes recommendations on how the country can continue to improve its implementation. The treaty bodies also periodically issue more detailed guidance on how to interpret different articles of their treaty, to help countries understand better what their obligations are.
There are also regional human rights instruments:
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which covers the 27 members of the European Union
Some countries have ratified some of the treaties that apply to them: this means that they have incorporated the content of the the treaties into their national law. Many countries also have a national human rights institution, which independently monitors and investigates human rights violations in that country, and advises the government on implementing their obligations.
Countries that have signed treaties have committed to implementing them. However, the process of implementing treaties in full, so that every person in a country can enjoy all the rights in a treaty, is very long and requires lots of actions from states. Campaigning groups, including non-governmental organisations, work to narrow the gap between what countries have promised to do, and what they have actually done so far. Some campaigning groups are international and work on lots of different human rights issues. Some work only on a small number of issues, or in a small area of the world.
How do human rights apply to data science and research ethics?#
Human rights are defined in law. This means in many ways they are less malleable than ethics. The letter of human rights, and the ways that they are implemented, are agreed internationally, A violation of human rights is a violation wherever it happens. This is not necessarily true of codes of ethics. An action that one group of people sees as ethical, may be seen as unethical by others. There is a wider shared understanding of what human rights means across different countries, cultures and groups of people. There are accountability and enforcement mechanisms. But because they are a legal framework, they are not as easily accessible, and hard to apply to the daily work of data science and research.
Human rights treaties are signed by countries: that means that ultimately, it is countries that are held responsible for violations of human rights. However, that does not mean that researchers and data scientists are exempt from thinking about the human rights impact of their work!
The UN has produced specific guidance for companies on how to ensure that they respect human rights: the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Companies should comply with these Guiding Principles.
NGOs and other campaigning organisations also produce guidance on specific areas:
The Toronto Declaration: Protecting the rights to equality and non-discrimination in machine learning systems(prepared by Amnesty International and Access Now and it has been endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Wikimedia Foundation)
Making sure that research complies with human rights is not just about ensuring that it doesn’t harm. It can also be about doing work that is actively pro-rights.
Researchers and data scientists should, in general ensure that they:
respect human rights: this means not doing work that itself abuses human rights
protect human rights: this means trying to ensure that their work cannot be used by others to abuse human rights
fulfil human rights: this means doing work that actively helps other people be able to enjoy all their human rights
The human rights framework also supports doing open science. In their General Comment 25 in 2020, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that “States should promote open science and open source publication of research.”