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close this bookThe Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-studies (UNU, 1993, 322 pages)
close this folder1. Technological impacts on human rights: Models of development, science and technology, and human rights
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe definition of the concept of technology
View the documentThe origins of the western technological culture
View the documentEnlightenment, the open industrial society, and human rights
View the documentThe enlightenment model of industrial development
View the documentA critical analysis of the enlightenment model of industrial development (technological imperialism)
View the documentModels of development and the technological factor
View the documentDevelopment, choice, and human rights
View the documentThe ''deconstruction'' of deterministic models of development
View the documentNotes


The coming of the industrial society, based on a new division of labour and on the systematic application of new technologies, was accompanied by the advent of a new image of man and society. This new image was expressed in such important documents as the Constitution of Virginia, Article I (1776), the Bill of Rights as part of the Constitution of the United States of America (1788) and the Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (1789). Those documents brought to the fore the pivotal idea of human rights as universal rights, grounded on the recognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the human family.1

During the Second World War mankind experienced extreme cruelties on a large scale, both from policies based on ideologies which emphasized the supposed inequality of "races," and from the uses of new military technologies. After the turmoil of this war the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1'.,48) stressed that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood" (Article 1). The universality of human rights is, again, emphasized in Article 2: "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status."2 Human beings, endowed with reason and conscience, are to be treated as ends in themselves, and not as passive victims of conditions and contingencies they cannot control.

Looking back on the advent of industrial society, it may come as a surprise when we see how little attention was paid, until recently, to a systematic analysis of the relationships between technological changes, on the one hand, and the development and actual implementation of human rights, on the other. We will return to this observation in the ensuing sections. In the meantime it is important to note that the question of the impact of new scientific and technological developments on human rights was brought before the United Nations in 1968 as a result of an initiative taken by the International Conference on Human Rights held in Tehran, Iran, in that year as part of the programme for the International Year for Human Rights.3 Following the recommendations of this conference the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution inviting the Secretary-General to undertake "continuous and interdisciplinary studies, both national and international, which might serve as a basis for drawing up appropriate standards to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms." Specific attention was to be paid to developments in science and technology in relation to:

(1) respect for the privacy of individuals and the integrity and sovereignty of nations in the light of advances in recording and other techniques;

(2) protection of the human personality and its physical and intellectual integrity in the light of advances in biology, medicine, and biochemistry;

(3) uses of electronics that may affect the rights of the person and the limits that should be placed on such uses in a democratic society; and, more generally,

(4) the balance which should be established between scientific and technological progress and the intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and moral advancement of humanity.4

This resolution accentuates the dangers that technological developments harbour with respect to human rights and fundamental freedoms. It should be clear, however, that in many cases technological developments offer opportunities for individual and collective choices and for the enhancement of human rights.5

Nevertheless, it is quite evident that present-day innovations in the domains of energy sciences, information technology, and biotechnology occur so rapidly and offer so many new choices for society that, as Weeramantry says in his seminal contribution to this subject: "Science and technology have burgeoned in the post-war years into instruments of power, control and manipulation. But the legal means of controlling them have not kept pace. Outmoded and out-manoeuvred by the headlong progress of technology, the legal principles that should control it are unresponsive and irrelevant." 6

Most contributions dealing with the relationship between technological developments and social and cultural life analyse chiefly the negative and positive effects of technological change on society, either directly or indirectly. The only course left to society seems to be to adjust to the exigencies of science and technology, for better or for worse. In these analyses, science and technology are considered as autonomous forces over which society has no control. In consequence of the preoccupation with their impact on society, analysis of the ways in which society shapes technological developments has been neglected.

In the next sections we shall discuss the genesis of the model of development that can be considered responsible for this one-sided approach of Western technology. It is important to understand this model of development, in which deterministic ideas regarding technology play a paramount role, if we are to reconsider Western technology's role in the context of opportunities for choice regarding our social and cultural life. After presenting this "technological imperialistic" or "technological functionalist" model of development and discussing its main shortcomings, we shall present some other models of development which have been formulated - partly at least- as a reaction to the claims of technological imperialism. The results of this analysis will be used to elucidate and elaborate the relationship between technological changes and human rights: How can choices be made in a world of technological and social constraints? In what ways can human rights play a pivotal role in the processes of decision-making?

In this contribution much attention is given to the origin, development, and socio-cultural impacts of the Enlightenment model of development. This emphasis on this Western model of development is a deliberate choice based on the following reasons: (a) the model elucidates the specific characteristics of Western technology and the impact of its diffusion throughout the world within a historical perspective; (b) the model is still a powerful instrument in the minds and hands of innovating elites in and outside the Western world, notwithstanding its theoretical and intellectual shortcomings; (c) the presentation of this model reveals, we hope, its strong ideological bias and the concomitant need to deconstruct it in order to find new courses of action; (d) it is hoped that this presentation emphasizes a contrast between the "Western view" of technological development and the models implied by the case-studies in this volume.

However, before describing models of development and their relevance to the relationship between technological change and human rights, we shall turn briefly to the question: "What do we understand by technology?"