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Guterres advocates for digital world that ‘strengthens human rights, advances peace’

Syrian adolescent girls use a smartphone outside a technology lab in Damietta Governorate, Egypt.
© UNICEF/Shehzad Noorani
Syrian adolescent girls use a smartphone outside a technology lab in Damietta Governorate, Egypt.

Guterres advocates for digital world that ‘strengthens human rights, advances peace’

Economic Development

Amidst a technological era that “beckons with vast opportunity”, new risks exist to global peace, stability and development, the UN chief told a side event of the General Assembly on Wednesday, aiming to help ensure access to digital technologies for all.

The UN was founded 75 years ago, at the outset of the nuclear era, to provide “a global platform for addressing the world’s most pressing challenges, to secure peace and to safeguard the future for generations”, said Secretary-General António Guterres in a video message on Thursday to the high-level meeting on digital cooperation

Asking the fundamental question: “What kind of world are we going to leave for our children?”, the UN chief wondered whether the legacy would be technologies that “only boost the wealthiest and most connected” societies, or one that would pass on “a digital world that strengthens human rights, advances peace and improves all lives, including the most vulnerable”.

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In a digital world of both vast potential and looming challenges, good governance and global cooperation is needed too – and the UN can play a critical role in bringing all actors together, he declared.

COVID factor

The COVID-19 pandemic has “highlighted and exacerbated global inequalities, including the digital divide”, said the UN chief.

This adds further urgency to ensure that the response also illustrates the “central role of technology in keeping economies and health systems running, young people learning, and everyone connected”.

Act now

Harnessing digital technologies to serve everyone, represents a global challenge, he added, “to be an enabler, an equalizer, and to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”.

Collective global action, including listening to youth to safeguard the digital future for the next generations, will help ensure technologies are utilized for the good of all.

Citing his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation as a path forward to a secure online world, Mr. Guterres reiterated his call to connect everyone and ensure affordable, inclusive and meaningful connectivity; respect digital technologies to ensure that human rights apply both on and offline; and protect against cyberattacks, disinformation and online safety for all people everywhere.

“I count on all of us…to carry forward the Roadmap for the benefit of all”, he concluded. “The time to act is now”.

Bridge digital divide

Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Henrietta Fore, said the Roadmap’s recommendations around universal connectivity and digital public goods are “essential for safe, affordable, online access for every person”.

And both are “necessary tools”, in supporting children and their families through the COVID-19 pandemic to recover and rebuild, she added. In elaborating the risks, she pointed out that the hundreds of millions of children and young people not online are “unable to access learning and skills”.

“Quite simply”, she said, “they are losing out on an opportunity to build better futures for themselves” and advocated to must bridge the digital divide.

Reimagining education

A student uses a virtual reality (VR) headset at a technology lab in Nigeria.
A student uses a virtual reality (VR) headset at a technology lab in Nigeria.

Ms. Fore told the meeting that alone with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UNICEF launched GIGA, “an ambitious global initiative” to connect every school and its surrounding community to the internet.

“This will offer billions more young people access to the world of information and endless opportunity”, she said. “We are working to reimagine education”, she continued, adding that this encompassed online learning opportunities, like a distant learning platform called the learning passport.

Today, GIGA reaches some 227 million children around the globe.

The UNICEF chief elaborated that the initiative includes its work with mobile phone companies “to provide zero rating solutions” and access to online learning tools as well as with companies to offer students new learning devices that are “preloaded with relevant, topical and accessible curriculum”.

The aim, according to the top UNICEF official, is to “use these tools for learning and skills development across a child’s development up to adulthood”.

Digital technology for survival 

Also speaking, Jack Ma, Co-chair of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, and founder of Alibaba, called the Secretary-General “a visionary to focus on digital cooperation years ago”.

Mr. Ma observed that since the coronavirus, the potential of digital technology “has become clear to the world”. Noting that in the past, digital technology “helped us to live a better life”, he stressed however, that “in the future, it will help us to survive”.

Over the next ten years, how the world adapts to the digital era will be very important, he said. “We have no choice but to understand, engage, and embrace the digital era”.

“Today's problems are created by yesterday's decision”, he underscored. “It is impossible for us to change the past, but today we can all do a little to create a better future”.