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close this bookThe Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)
close this folder4. Human rights and technological development: Eastern Europe and Poland
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentPreface: objective and methodology of the project
View the documentGeneral evaluation of Eastern Europe as a political region
View the documentThe special nature of the polish empirical approach to human rights
View the documentInteraction between human rights and technological development in Poland
View the documentInterrelationship between the basic character of human rights and development of traditional technologies
View the documentInterrelationship between human rights and advanced technologies
View the documentConclusions
View the documentNotes
View the documentBibliography

Interrelationship between human rights and advanced technologies

The notion of advanced technologies refers here both to technical appliances and to methods of their usage, leading to the replacement not only of manual work but also of the mental work of man. In this sense, an example of advanced technology is electronic communication techniques.29 These, like traditional technologies, have a double impact on human rights. On the one hand they may contribute to the fulfilment of certain rights, and on the other they may simultaneously hamper the fulfilment of other rights. This relationship can also be inverse, with some human rights speeding up the introduction of advanced technologies and others making the adoption of such technologies impossible.

Advanced technologies exert a positive influence on labour productivity, the improvement of quality, and other modern features of production. They eliminate a whole range of adverse side-effects of mechanization and automation, such as noise, air pollution with chemical substances, dust, etc. In countries suffering from a shortage of trained labour, advanced technologies make it possible to overcome this barrier.

Advanced technologies completely change the position of man in the process of his interaction with nature. His role in some ways becomes more and more superior, and in others increasingly subservient. Superiority comes from his increased power over nature and subservience from his increasing dependence on the technology.

Production of Electric Power by Nuclear Fission

The technologies involved in the production of electric power by nuclear fission can certainly be referred to as advanced. They have led to an almost complete elimination of manual work and a limitation of mental work through the use of robots, computers, and other modern appliances. These technologies are very efficient. They can be installed far from the sources of raw material, and they do not produce dusts or chemical substances as by-products. They are also silent and sterile. However, in the case of equipment failure, they can lead to ecological disasters that cannot be averted by man and the aftermath of which is long-lasting and poses a threat to large populations in far-away regions.

This is why nuclear power stations give rise to controversy. An example is the public debate on the future of nuclear power engineering, which has been going on in Poland since the middle of 1989. Although decisions on the development of nuclear power engineering were taken earlier, the change in the political system, involving a different approach to human rights, has aroused broad social resistance to these decisions.

The proponents of nuclear power engineering especially atomic physicists, express the opinion that it offers a better method of electric power generation than that provided by thermal power stations burning coal.30 In Poland, suffering from acute shortage of electric power, and virtually deprived of other possibilities for generating electric power (apart from power engineering based on coal), nuclear power engineering should, according to this opinion, command a special interest. Nevertheless, human rights in a liberal sense form a barrier to that interest.

The proponents of nuclear power engineering argue that for economic reasons electric power generation in nuclear power stations is much more worth while than in coal-burning power stations. A yet more serious reason for the replacement of coal-burning power plants with nuclear power stations is, according to them, environmental pollution, as power engineering based on coal causes much more pollution than nuclear power engineering does. In Poland, for instance, coal-based power engineering contributes to the discharge of some 50 per cent of all particulate matter and some 70 per cent of sulphur dioxide.

At the same time, coal-based power engineering discharges into the natural environment such substances as uranium, radium, thorium and their derivatives, increasing by three times the risk of cancer as compared with nuclear power engineering. A properly operated nuclear power plant is a source of very slight radiation affecting people living in its surroundings and insignificant radiation affecting employees at various stages of the production cycle.31 In the case of populations living near the power plant, the doses of radiation are millions of times lower than those required to cause detectable effects. In the case of power-station employees, the difference is of the order of hundreds and thousands of times. Thus, this kind of threat does not have to be taken into account. On the other hand, the aftermath of accidents, even at low doses of radiation, must be considered. According to the opinion expressed by Julian Liniecki, a UN expert on Research into the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), these risks are quite insignificant, taking into account 434 nuclear reactors in operation in 1988, generating 318 thousand MW of electric power, and the number of accidents that have occurred in those power stations so far, in comparison with other risks faced by every society.

The risks posed by nuclear wastes dumped by nuclear power plants are, according to the proponents of nuclear power engineering, 200,000 times lower than those entailed in coal-based power engineering. This proportion is not considerably altered by equipment for reducing the amount of sulphur and nitrogen pollutants discharged into the atmosphere. Even if the efficiency of that equipment amounted to 90 per cent, the remaining 10 per cent of pollutants would be more dangerous than pollution caused by nuclear power stations.

Thus, in the opinion of the experts mentioned above, the comparison of the harmful effects of nuclear and coal-based electric power generation on health and the environment justifies the claim that the nuclear process, at the present technological level, represents an incomparably lower risk for human life and health. Besides, it does not bring about, even to a limited extent, the environmental damage typical of coal-based power engineering.

At present 235 nuclear reactors are in operation in Europe, accounting for 70 per cent of the total electric energy output in France, 66 per cent in Belgium, and 47 per cent in Sweden. At the same time 97 other nuclear reactors are under construction, of which 26 are in the Soviet Union and eight in France.

Poland is one of the few countries in Europe without nuclear power engineering. Apart from Poland, this group includes Albania, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Norway, and Portugal. It should be remembered that Poland is surrounded on all sides by countries with many nuclear power stations in operation on their territories. In the Soviet Union there are as many as 53, as well as eight in Czechoslovakia and five in the eastern part of Germany . At the same time, eight other nuclear power stations are under construction in Czechoslovakia and six in the east of Germany. New nuclear power stations are also being constructed on the eastern side of the Polish border, in the Ukraine and Byelorussia.

The proponents of nuclear power engineering claim that in this situation, taking into account even a slight possibility of a threat caused by a technical failure, this would most probably take place on the territory of one of the neighbouring countries, where the number of nuclear power stations in operation is already considerable (several dozens) and where another dozen or so new plants are under construction. In view of the fact that the distances separating Poland from her neighbours are small, she would suffer a great deal from a nuclear accident.

However, all these arguments are not convincing to the Polish opponents of the plans to construct nuclear power stations. They place in the forefront two fundamental human rights: the right to life and the right to a healthy environment. The action undertaken by the Polish opponents of nuclear power engineering successfully blocked the implementation of several investment projects of this kind in Zarnowiec, Klempicz, Miedzyrzecz, and Karolewo. It should be added that the construction of the Zarnowiec nuclear power plant was suspended at the last stage of implementation of the project.32

What are the reasons for the public attitude in Poland towards this issue?

First and foremost is the complete change of approach to human rights that took place at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990, expressed in terms of the replacement of the collective needs of society as a whole with the rights of an individual in the liberal sense. Owing to the fact that all decisions on the construction of nuclear power stations in Poland were taken in the period when human rights were identified with the collectively perceived social rights of citizens as seen by an authoritarian government, it is suspected at present that these decisions were taken on an incorrect basis, without respect for the interests of local communities and without safety guarantees, both at the regional and the national level.

According to this argument, technological decisions were political decisions, and experts were used only to justify politicians' orders. Lack of any kind of opposition hampered the development of adversarial mechanisms and procedures constituting the basis of social dialogue on important issues and choices in the field of technology. Restrictions on information, affecting not only citizens and journalists but also experts, and strict censorship made it possible for the politicians of the time to manipulate information. Public discussions on nuclear power engineering were not allowed, except for discussions among experts forming the atomic lobby.

The second reason for social resistance to nuclear power stations is the low technical culture of society. In the process of technical education available in Poland hitherto, scope for objective evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of technological development, including nuclear power engineering, was too narrow. It is also for this reason that groups in society which influence social opinion are unable to make an objective assessment of the positive and negative aspects of the development of nuclear power engineering. Positive opinions formulated by experts on nuclear power engineering are suspected of lacking objectivity and/or falsifying reality.

In this process an important part is played by the mass media in attempting to win the support of public opinion and questioning the truthfulness of experts. For instance, the Morze monthly33 quoted an opinion of an "expert," who said that construction of the Zarnowiec nuclear power station would have increased the cancer mortality in that region by 200 per cent. According to the opinion of Julian Liniecki already quoted, this falsified the actual position by 100,000 times. The impact of such information on public opinion is apparent, causing as it did increased hysteria in opponents of nuclear power engineering. There are numerous examples of such opinions presented in the Polish press. The purveyors of such information, often representing skimpy knowledge and low technical culture, react spontaneously and sometimes harshly to the construction of nuclear power stations, taking no account of arguments provided by experts in the field of nuclear power engineering and opinions voiced by internationally distinguished authorities.

The third and most serious cause of the negative attitude of Polish public opinion towards the construction of nuclear power stations is the Chernobyl disaster. This disaster has proved that one serious accident can completely ruin all the advantageous effects , whether economic, environ mental or social, of nuclear power engineering. This was the first time that the truth about the dangers involved in the development of nuclear power engineering penetrated public opinion so deeply. The Chernobyl disaster was bound to strengthen the negative attitude of public opinion towards the development of nuclear power engineering, not only in Europe but also in the world generally.34

For these reasons social attitudes towards traditional and advanced technologies are different. The former do not give rise to strong social emotions, although in everyday practice they may be much more hazardous to human health and life, e. g. coal-based power engineering. In contrast, advanced technologies are treated with great caution. It is also of significance here that man is completely helpless in the face of, for example, an accident in a nuclear power station which can in the long run pose a threat to people not directly involved with the power station. An accident in a conventional power station affects only people having direct contact with it. It is like a car accident- except for those directly involved in it, the rest are safe.

The negative attitude of Polish public opinion towards nuclear power arises also from the fact that the technology for the construction of nuclear reactors comes from the Soviet Union, i.e. the country in which the Chernobyl disaster took place. Opponents of nuclear power engineering in Poland remain silent over the fact that the reactor in Chernobyl was of a completely different type to those built in Europe and intended for operation in Poland. Polish public opinion remains mistrustful, no matter what arguments are put forward.

The opponents of nuclear power give priority to - and are right in doing so - the need to reduce the energy-intensity of the Polish economy, the elimination of en route losses of electric energy, the use of equipment for eliminating the adverse effects of coal-based power engineering on the natural environment, and the development of other kinds of power stations (gas-burning, hydroelectric), etc. Reluctant to admit arguments relevant to the subject, they emphasize their right to participate in the making of important choices concerning technology. In their view society should have the decisive say in the matter of choosing advanced technologies which are especially dangerous to health. It should have unlimited access to information on technologies being chosen, possible alternatives, and the possibilities of other non-technical solutions. In this connection society should be extensively informed about economic, ecological, social, and other costs, including the costs of alternative solutions. Decisions taken on the choice of advanced technologies should be preceded by discussions among proponents of various solutions. In this way society should influence the choice of technology. The stance of various groups in society should be represented by independent experts who exert influence on the making of technological decisions.

Some adherents of liberal human rights go even further, demanding the right to control research and development and investment and operational processes. In their opinion, the location of advanced technologies must not be chosen without the consent of local communities; if those communities veto it, the project should not go ahead. Such an opinion should be binding even if arguments put forward by the local community are based on wrong assumptions. Representative institutions and citizens' representatives should respect their decisions and preferences without exception.

Opinion polls carried out among local communities in Poland concerning the location of nuclear power stations confirm the negative attitude of these communities towards nuclear power engineering. According to J. Kaminski, who carried out an opinion poll among the inhabitants of territories close to the location site of a nuclear power station in Klempicz, as many as 53 per cent of respondents declared themselves against the development of nuclear power stations in Poland, 62 per cent were against locating the power station on their territory, and 89 per cent demanded participation in the decision-making process on nuclear power stations. More than 92 per cent of those polled were convinced that there were risks involved with the operation of such stations; 76 per cent assessed this risk as high. In the opinion of 56 per cent of respondents, every nuclear power station had an adverse effect on the population's health.35

In the light of the results of this poll, the future for nuclear power engineering in Poland looks bleak if liberally perceived human rights are to be fully observed. In 1990 the Polish government renounced the development of nuclear power engineering in Poland. The construction of the most advanced Zarnowiec nuclear power station was stopped. The fate of other advanced technologies is also uncertain.36

Electronic Communication Techniques

The idea of "electronic communication techniques" covers any transfer of information from one place to another by electronic means. It includes the transfer of the printed world and pictures, as well as the transfer of live auditory or visual messages, and the capture and storage of such information on audio or video tapes or by other means for future electronic transmission or retrieval.37

The impact of this technology on human rights is manifested in several fields, first of all in the field of access to information by marriage of computers and communications. The combination of those two kinds of advanced technologies initiated a genuine revolution in the field of in formation , enabling the owners of computers connected through wires, cables, microwave radio waves, or earth satellites to data banks to obtain immediately all the needed information, even in the most remote place in the world. This gives them an unquestioned advantage over those who do not have access to such technologies.

By the same token, the combination of computers and communications opens up vast possibilities for subordinating people, enslaving their minds, and influencing their political views and public behaviour on the part of those holding a monopolistic position in deriving and transmitting information. This leads to the violation of human rights in many fields, especially the right of access to objective information.

Finally, the combination of computers and communications enhances the technological advantage of countries in possession of these technologies and of the facilities for their manufacture over countries without access to them. This has an adverse impact on the development opportunities of the latter.

The foregoing means that electronic communication techniques may, on the one hand, positively affect human rights, and, on the other, may simultaneously violate these rights. For instance, violation of the right of free access to information is incompatible with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Control over computer communications may in some situations have a bearing on the rights of people to self-determination, as enumerated in Article 1 of the International Covenants.

In Poland the situation in the field of electronic communication techniques is diversified. It differs substantially in reference to computers and communications. It should be pointed out that the barrier to their development is placed not by human rights but by economic possibilities.

This can be seen, first of all, in private imports of computers to Poland. Some 65 per cent of all personal computers and 35 per cent of professional computers operated in Poland come from private tourist imports. As regards the number of computers in use, Poland occupies a leading position among European countries and the first position in Eastern Europe. The total number of PC type computers operated in Poland exceeds 1.5 million.38 At the same time there are many computer centres using large computers manufactured by IBM, ICL, and the like. In this field Poland has become a special centre of modern technology in Eastern Europe. Microcomputers manufactured in the United States, Japan, the newly industrialized countries, and Western Europe are re-exported from Poland to the Soviet Union.39 Computer exhibitions and fairs, the largest in Eastern Europe, are staged in Poland with the participation of representatives of the biggest producers in the world. It is also here that the newest designs in this field are sold.

Unfortunately, Poland has so far been unable to exploit its advantage over other East European countries in the field of computerization. Private owners of computers often use them for purposes having little to do with computerization. They are little utilized in economic activity programming. To a very small extent they are used to gather, process, and transmit information. Thus, unlike in Western countries, where computers constitute parts of an information system, in Poland they are used independently by their owners.

In Poland there are no data banks to which a computer owner could have access through a telephone or so-called modem, nor are there the information networks so popular in the West, through which computer users could cooperate among themselves. Such banks, in view of the present level of computer ownership, which is high by East European standards, would be useful in Poland.

There are two causes of this state of affairs. The first is of a cultural nature. Some owners of computers do not feel the need to use a data bank or to take part in an information network. Some use their computers for financial accounting purposes, but they do not feel the need to take part in modern information-gathering networks. Some use computers as typewriters and others for fun and for computer games.

Overcoming the cultural barrier requires, first of all, raising the level of knowledge of computer science. Many computer owners lacked the time, or felt no need, to improve their knowledge of computer science. For some of them having a computer was a question of fashion, not functional utility.

The other, equally important reason for the inadequate use of computer potential in Poland is a technical one, resulting from the underdevelopment of telecommunications. At the beginning of 1990 almost 3 million telophones had been installed in Poland, which was equivalent to 7.8 per 100 inhabitants - i.e. three times less than the European average and six times less than the indicator for the most advanced economies.

Only one in ten telephones is installed in rural areas and 8,000 Polish villages do not have telephones at all. The situation in towns varies. In some of them the level of subscription is very low; for example, in Walbrzych, where there are 6.6 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. In Warsaw there are 23 subscribers for every 100 inhabitants. Even there, where the number of telephones is greater, the chances of obtaining a connection are limited owing to an insufficient network of telephone exchanges, the obsolete design of those exchanges, etc.

The underdevelopment of the Polish telephone system is the basic barrier to the development of connections with the world. In 1988 Poland had automatic bidireetional circuits with only 22 European countries. Outside Europe only the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Kuwait could get automatic connections with Poland, while Poland could only connect with them through manually operated telephone exchanges, with waiting times of up to a dozen hours. Poland is connected with the outside world through 564 lines only, and the world with Poland through 980 lines. In 1988 these were used for almost 140 million calls between subscribers in the outside world and Poland, and 65 million calls between subscribers in Poland and the rest of the world. This explains, to a large extent, the long waiting time experienced by a subseriber in Poland for connection with a number outside the country.

Telefax connections are also inadequate. According to estimates, in 1990 the number of telefax devices in the world amounted to 6.3 million and in Poland to 5,000. The situation is not satisfactory as far as telexes are concerned (in 1990 there were 34,000 in Poland). Wireless telephony is virtually non-existent in Poland.

Changing this situation requires considerable capital investment and time, without which conditions for computerization will not improve.

In other words, a changed approach to human rights, reflected in giving priority to the liberally perceived rights of individuals, especially the right of access to information, can be seen as one of the conditions for the development of computerization. However, this is not the sole condition. An equally important part is played by the creation of appropriate technical conditions, for without this computerization cannot be implemented.

Poland, like other countries of Eastern Europe, still lags far behind the West, as a result not only of an underdeveloped technological base, but also of a lower level of technical culture.