Digital Trade in Africa: Implications for Inclusion and Human Rights

For the United Nations, human rights offline must also be protected online.

Opening Remarks by Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie, UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative & UN Humanitarian Coordinator

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 

Madam Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa;

Mr. Carlos Lopes, Professor at Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice, University of Cape Town, and Visiting Professor at Sciences Po, Paris;

Excellency Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy, African Union Commission; Mr. Florian Koch, Director, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung African Union Office;

Mr. David Luke, Coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa; Madame Nwanne Vwede-Obahor, Regional Representative of OHCHR;

Heads of UNCT and UNLT, Delegates from Governments, Civil Society Organisations and Private Sector; Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen;

Distinguished Guests,

Colleagues and friends,

All Protocol Observed;

For the United Nations, human rights offline must also be protected online. The General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have affirmed that the online space cannot be rights-free.  Human rights in the digital era, such as to online privacy and freedom of expression, for example, are really extensions of the equal and inalienable rights laid out in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, we celebrate 70 years of this consensus and at this Conference, we have a unique opportunity to mainstream those fundamental ideals that are no less true today than then, and whose inalienability is no less applicable online than it is offline. The core concept of human rights in the Declaration, human dignity, must guide our deliberations today and tomorrow.

We can also capitalize on existing voluntary frameworks in order to imbue digital trade with rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide an authoritative global standard for preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts linked to business activity and enjoy near universal industry uptake including of tech companies.

The UNGPs three pillars; protect, respect and repair, offer a unique framework within which the rights framework can interface with that on digital trade. Tech companies would respect human rights, that is do-no-harm, and undertake the requisite due diligence. States would protect against human rights abuses by third parties, while both would establish effective remedy mechanisms for victims of human rights abuses in the context of online trade activities. On the issue of remedies, access to justice and dispute resolution mechanisms would encourage the use of digital trade consequent to confidence that peoples’ consumer rights, intellectual property rights, rights to privacy and the use of their data are protected, and that adequate fair trial and due-process considerations of fairness, impartiality and right to be heard are imbedded therein.

It is paramount that discussions on an inclusive digital trade environment must delve deeper into the issue of non-discrimination. Traditional assessment on non-discrimination means for example looking at whether women and girls have access to the internet and reap its benefits and is mainly vis-à-vis men and boys respectively. Inter-sectionality means looking at whether minority women, disabled women, rural women, minority men, disabled men, rural men, the minority youth, the disabled youth, rural youth and so on, also have comparable access and benefits. Let us probe and drill down to the smallest human denominator to ensure that indeed no one is left behind. 

I would like to conclude by saying that when not used appropriately, there is significant risk that the deployment of digital trade is resulting in widening inequalities in society. Without targeted measures privilege and exclusion tend to perpetuate themselves. I hope that the  discussions during the coming days will bring us the full range of opportunities of digital trade and solutions to threats posed, as we share knowledge and ideas on the range of work that is being undertaken to secure greater protection. In the process I’m sure we will all discover further opportunities for collaboration, reinforcement or exchange. As someone said, “to those used to privilege, equality feels like an oppression”, and so we all must guard against our conscious and unconscious biases and pushbacks, and our varied tolerances and intolerances, to aim for an outcome that has the minimum of safeguards and is grounded on parity, and dignity from the onset. As we convene in this beautiful city, let us embrace and leverage technology to advance human rights in digital trade. Let us carry the 70 years of historic affirmation, including of African States, of the unequivocal place of rights and dignity of every individual above all other consideration, as per the spirit of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mesdames, Messieurs, je vous souhaite de riches et fructueuses délibérations.

I wish you rich and fruitful deliberations.

Thank you!

Speech by
Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator
Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Development Programme