(Photo Caption: The Elders’ debate with Egyptian youth in Cairo, October 2012. Credit: Jeff Moore | The Elders)

Published in Partnership with CNN.com’s Global Public Square with Fareed Zakaria.

Mary Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is a member of The Elders, independent leaders using their collective experience and influence for peace, justice and human rights worldwide.

Article Highlights:

  • Egypt’s transformation since January 2011 has demonstrated that the desire for freedom, dignity and participation in government is truly universal.
  • Social media and other new communications technologies have been used around the world to share information, coordinate action and promote these fundamental rights and freedoms.
  • On Human Rights Day 2012, and while government representatives are meeting at a global summit on internet governance, we must ensure that these rights are protected – both online and offline.

Human rights belong to each of us as individuals. But they also serve a collective purpose, and are never enjoyed in isolation. The theme of this year’s International Human Rights Day is ‘inclusion and the right to participate in public life’.  It is an important reminder that freedom of expression, freedom of association and the ability to participate in the processes by which we are governed are universal human rights that we all share.

More and more, we have access to tools that can help us realise these fundamental rights. The internet, mobile phones and social media give ordinary citizens the power to inform ourselves, voice our opinions and coordinate action, with sometimes dramatic results. In the face of efforts to exercise greater control over internet access and activity, it is vital that we protect these rights – both online and offline – that form the bedrock of inclusive, open societies.

The right to be heard

Having been UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I am all too familiar with the argument that human rights is a ‘Western’ concept. The uprisings that began to shake the Arab world almost two years ago, and the developments that have followed, are one great example of the fundamental flaw in this argument. In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere we saw an unprecedented expression of the universal desire – long-repressed – for dignity and freedom.

Since then, the transformation in Egypt has been stunning. The Elders were in Cairo in late 2010, just before the start of what would eventually become known as the ‘Arab Awakening’. I remember the authorities at the time making it very difficult for us to meet Egyptian students – and when we did finally get permission to sit down with young Egyptians, I had the strong sense that they were afraid: afraid to criticise the government and its policies, afraid of who might be listening.

I noted a remarkable difference when I returned to Egypt in October this year with my fellow Elders. Everyone we met – union leaders, journalists, human rights experts, economists and religious leaders – are engaged in vigorous debate about the future direction of their country. There was little fear about criticising the new government, which I found very encouraging.

Most inspiring were the young people we met, who had no reservations about telling us – live on Egyptian television – the changes that they want to see in their country. In a debate on Egypt’s democratic transition, we heard from 21-year old Moaz that Egyptian youth are now being politically sidelined even though it was they who led the uprising in January 2011. Hadia, 22, told us that there are still limitations on the right to free speech under President Morsi’s leadership (yet ironically, the fact that she was able to say so marks some small measure of progress!). Many in the 200-strong audience were clamouring to have their say, and I was particularly encouraged to see that there was no hesitation to speak up among the young women, in what remains a very conservative, patriarchal society.

Social media: raising our expectations

This kind of energetic debate is a sign of an increasingly open civil sphere. A plurality of opinions should always be welcomed  – after all, democracy is a process of resolving differences through debate. Decisions must be negotiated and monitored constantly.

It has been inspiring to see how new communications technologies have allowed us to expand the space for public debate in recent years. The internet has enabled an explosion of information and expression worldwide, and while I am sceptical about claims that Twitter and Facebook ‘caused’ events like the Arab Awakening, it is evident that social media was an indispensable tool in the dissemination of uncensored information and the coordination of public protests in the region.

“The internet has provided us with new tools that strengthen citizen movements and promote greater democratisation and accountability; it has also proved a powerful tool for censorship and surveillance.”

This raises questions concerning the role of companies and highlights a critical gap – many business leaders are taking major decisions on their own, often without a firm understanding of their impacts on human rights. To help mainstream respect for human rights in corporate decision-making, the European Commission has embarked on a project to develop guidance for three critical industry sectors, including information and communication technologies, which are so important in today’s world. My colleagues at the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Shift are working with the Commission to develop this guidance in order to give practical meaning to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were adopted in 2011.

As these tools become more accessible to people around the world – by 2020 there will be an estimated 5 billion people with access to the internet – civil society becomes better-equipped to engage in public life. Citizens have used mobile phones and internet platforms to record human rights abuses, pressure leaders to become more accountable, and connect and work together across borders. As one young Egyptian told us, “the only borders now are on maps.”

At the same time, our expectations are getting higher – and this is a good thing. When we are used to finding information freely available online, we expect to have the right to access that information without restriction. When we see various world leaders on Twitter, we expect to be able to contact our own leaders directly through such platforms. The more we grow accustomed to voicing our opinions online, the more we resist being silenced.

I believe this is part of a broader global trend towards greater participation. There is such a strong desire now to be consulted – really consulted, not just in a tokenistic way – and to be involved in government as opposed to just being objects of someone else’s policy decisions. We must embrace this trend; by supporting greater inclusivity and participation in governance, we will strengthen the development of democracy worldwide.

Protecting public space – online and offline

Unfortunately, the same tools and platforms that have helped these freedoms to flourish can be manipulated to restrict access to information, monitor dissident activity and exercise greater control over citizens. They offer perhaps as many challenges to these freedoms as they do opportunities. Just two weeks ago we saw Syria’s government cutting off internet and mobile access to the entire country, just as Egypt’s government did in January 2011. Others are using international fora to lobby for greater powers for governments seeking to restrict citizens’ internet freedoms in the name of ‘security’.

The internet has given rise to a new space and new tools for human activity, but it does not require a new set of rules. The internationally agreed rights to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association, and to take part in government are enshrined in the very document that we have celebrated on this day for the past 64 years. These covenants should be applied to the online world in exactly the same way that they apply to the ‘offline’ world.

In July this year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution affirming that these rights should be protected on the internet, which was a welcome step in the right direction. As I write, government representatives from around the world are meeting for the World Conference on International Telecommunications. Whatever is agreed at this forum could have profound consequences for internet freedom; it is vital that any decisions reached uphold the fundamental rights set down in the Universal Declaration in 1948.

The slogan for this year’s Human Rights Day is ‘My Voice Counts’. In Egypt, we saw just how fervently people believe this to be true – each of us, whether we live under democracy or dictatorship, yearns to have some say in the decisions that affect our lives. The internet has provided us with new tools that strengthen citizen movements and promote greater democratisation and accountability; it has also proved a powerful tool for censorship and surveillance.

Only by protecting the internet as a space where respect for fundamental human rights prevails can we hope to see more Springs, more Awakenings and ever greater freedoms in years to come.