01 December 2023

Bringing Human Rights Close to Home: Social Media and a Humanity in Crisis

PhD Researcher in International Law and Project Officer for the Geneva Human Rights Platform, Stefania Di Stefano represented the Geneva Graduate Institute and her fellow students in exchanges with Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a conference co-organised by the Institute, the University of Geneva, and the Geneva Academy: “Volker Türk: Les droits humains face à une humanité en crise”. She considers the theme of the event and ties it to her field of research. She is writing a PhD thesis entitled “Regulating Freedom of Expression in the Age of Social Media.”

2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). For the occasion, a conference in the presence of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk, took place as part of the “Semaine des Droits Humains”, hosted by the University of Geneva, on 21st November. The event offered the opportunity for an exchange between the UN High Commissioner and members of the student community of the Graduate Institute, the Geneva Academy and UNIGE, and I had the great privilege of representing my fellow students at this important event.

The wider theme of the conference was the role of human rights in the context of a humanity in crisis. Indeed, the UN High Commissioner underscored, in the keynote speech, the many challenges that we are seeing to human rights across the world. With one quarter of humanity living in conflict-affected areas, which include amongst many more Ukraine, Sudan, Ethiopia, the Sahel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, along with the widespread discrimination that far too many people face in their everyday lives, the constant rise of extreme poverty, the restrictions to civic space, and the triple planetary crisis… the picture before our eyes is one of a world where efforts to ensure protection of fundamental human rights are failing. The system is failing. Humanity, despite the countless claims of “never again”, is failing.

When I accepted the offer to engage in this exchange, I found myself having to go back to the reasons that brought me to the human rights field in the first place, and face once more the helplessness and despair that far too often characterize working in this area. And my mind went back to the famous quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairperson of the drafting committee of the UDHR, that all of us who have studied international human rights law have encountered at least once: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world”.

In the 75 years since the adoption of the UDHR, have we managed to bring human rights close to home? What does it mean to bring human rights close to home? This is perhaps the question that also brought me to my PhD research: the realisation that bringing human rights close to home means also including other actors in the human rights discourse. Indeed, looking at the role that social media platforms play in how we, as individuals, exercise our right to freedom of expression is a very small part of the picture. And yet, their impact on how human rights are protected close to “our” homes is significant. If we consider the current situation in Gaza, the role of social media platforms in silencing Palestinian voices as well as amplifying hate speech, discrimination and violence cannot be ignored. To my question as to whether the current human rights framework is up to the task for addressing human rights violations committed by non-state actors, the UN High Commissioner replied that this is another area where progress is needed.

Is there a solution? Yes, there is. In the UDHR. In the need to ensure that rights really begin close to home. The path ahead is winding and uphill. But, as the UN High Commissioner reminded us, it is the UDHR, with “its essential values, which connect all of humanity, [which] were set out to ward off horror and destruction”, which “embody the power of unity of purpose and the potential for transformative action”, that we can navigate to safety.


Watch the Conference with Volker Türk

© Geneva Academy
In discussion with Volker Türk © Geneva Academy
In discussion with Volker Türk © Geneva Academy