During the week of Jun. 5, 2023, the Charity & Security Network (C&SN) virtually attended sessions at RightsCon 2023, which took place in Costa Rica. Topics covered during the event included: 

  • counter-terrorism measures’ impacts on digital spaces and human rights; 
  • the shrinking of civil society space online; 
  • how artificial intelligence (AI) tools can help civil society; 
  • the impact of surveillance on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights defenders; and, 
  • the role of social media companies incorporating a human rights-based approach in countering terrorism and violent extremism. 

The sessions attended by C&SN are summarized below: 

How the War on Terrorism and Extremism is Undermining Digital Rights Around the World


This session discussed the role of counter-terrorism measures in deteriorating human rights protections online and offline. The speakers used Russia, Belarus, Israel, and Turkey as examples of countries using terrorist designations to target NGOs, human rights defenders, journalists, and oppositionists. 

Both the panel and audience examined various definitions and standards related to “terrorism” and “extremism” around the world, noting the problems caused by lack of internationally recognized and accepted definitions for these powerful terms. Without standardization, state actors can misuse these terms to crack down on civil society and human rights defenders. 

In the course of the presentation, the panelists noted the downstream negative consequences of broad counter-terrorism laws, such as the defunding of organizations mischaracterized as “terrorist” organizations or “foreign agents” by authoritarian governments, the shrinking of civic space, and the weaponization of digital spaces – like social media – to imprison human rights defenders and activists. 

Rise of the Good Machines: Harnessing AI to Protect Human Rights and Democracy


The session began with an overview of a new AI tool that could protect civil society actors operating in dangerous or fragile environments. The project, called Machine Learning for Peace (MLP), developed by DevLab at the University of Pennsylvania, makes reliable predictions about future civic space by scanning tens of millions of articles in 30+ languages. Based on the MLP data, the creators launched the “Civic Space Early Warning System,” which can indicate the likelihood of protests, politically-motivated arrests, or future censorship implemented by state actors in certain locations.

Panelists and audience members – including researchers, local and international NGOs, and others –  were split into breakout rooms where they could offer their impressions, feedback, and questions about the tool. In these breakout sessions, groups examined how the tool combats troublesome issues like disinformation, what types of human verification exist within the system, and how individuals see the potential for the use of this tool in their various fields. 

The discussion explored how this AI tool can help human rights defenders and civil society in countries and regions where state actors are using technology to shrink civic space. While the tool itself is still growing and developing, it could be an exciting resource for NGOs and civil society operating in fragile environments. 

Cross-Sector Approaches to Human Rights Due Diligence in Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Extremism Efforts Online


This session examined how technology companies, governments, UN actors, and NGOs have incorporated human rights structures as a part of their efforts to counter terrorism online.

The panel was moderated by Anna Oosterlink of Article 19, with whom C&SN recently collaborated at the UN Civil Society Town Hall as part of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Eighth Review and Roadmap in partnership with the CSO Coalition on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism.

Panelists provided unique perspectives on how best to incorporate a human rights-based approach in addressing terrorism and violent extremism online. Notably, all speakers stressed the importance of multi-stakeholder collaboration between sectors to ensure that human rights oversight is intertwined in their efforts to counter terrorism. Cross-sector collaboration is particularly important as technology is constantly changing and presenting new challenges for the technological sector, the UN, and civil society. 

As was the case in many sessions at RightsCon 2023, panelists identified the lack of an internationally accepted definition of terrorism as an obstacle in countering terrorism and violent extremism online. All parties agreed that there needs to be accountability and oversight in the field of technology when dealing with these issues. 

Addressing the Deterioration of Digital Civic Space and Media in Afghanistan


This session explored the erosion of media access, digital rights, and digital privacy in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021. 

Panelists spoke on the ways in which the Taliban has weaponized social media and digital communication platforms to promulgate propaganda and target human rights defenders and individuals who speak out against the Taliban. Due to the potential for social media and digital communications to be weaponized against them, fewer people in Afghanistan are using these tools to communicate. This has led to a decline in media space and privacy in Afghanistan as a whole, which impedes freedom of expression. 

Panelists also addressed the particular ways in which the shrinking of communication spaces has negatively impacted women human rights defenders in Afghanistan, many of which have been imprisoned or killed because of their activism. With surveillance on the rise coupled with limited access to information and services, it has been incredibly difficult for civil society to operate in the country. The session covered the importance of social media companies and their role in responding to emergency situations on their platforms so that people in Afghanistan can continue to be safely active online.