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Digital divides: Considerations on access to the internet as a human right in Rwanda

Written by Elizabeth Button

This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI). For more information, see Consultancy Africa Intelligence.

On 20 August 2013, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the social networking website Facebook, stated his belief that “[internet] connectivity is a human right.”(2) His proclamation, which was part of a wider proposal to connect the next 5 billion people currently without internet access, sparked a heated debate within online news and blogging communities on the validity of such an assertion.(3)

The United Nations (UN), a global authority on human rights, has also declared access to the internet to be a human right.(4) However, Vinton Cerf, who is credited as a ‘father’ engineer of the internet, argues that while internet access is an enabler of rights, it is not a right itself.(5)

Nine and a half thousand miles away from the Californian Facebook headquarters in the United States (US), the president of the Republic of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has committed to increase nationwide access to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).(6) On his government’s official website it is written that “…access to information will no longer be a luxury as high-speed internet connectivity becomes affordable and accessible.”(7) Following through on his promises, Kagame – who sees himself as a digital visionary (8) – recently struck a deal with South Korea’s biggest telecommunications provider, Korea Telecom (KT), to create a high-speed broadband network that would reach 95% of Rwandan citizens in three years.(9)

This paper exposes the dilemma of advocating for greater human rights coverage when no such provision is accounted for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or associated covenants and treaties. It provides discussion on the meaning of human rights with regards to the internet and the Rwandan context, and calls on Kagame to legally protect his citizens’ right to access the internet. Not only will this hold him accountable to the pledges his government has made, but it could also provide him the opportunity to be known as a human rights pioneer on a global level.


Legal coverage

Nowhere in the UDHR or its associated international covenants and treaties – the main reference points to all other human rights frameworks – does it specifically define internet access as an inalienable right of all members of the human family.(10)

The UDHR does, however, make a number of guarantees to all human beings with regards to their rights to: “…life, liberty, and security…” (Article 3); non-arbitrary interference with regards to “…privacy, family, home, or correspondence…” (Article 8); “…freedom of opinion and expression…” in seeking, receiving, and imparting information and ideas through any media (Article 19); free assembly (Article 20); participation in the government of their country and access to public service in their country (Article 21); economic, social, and cultural rights — indispensable to a person’s dignity and the free development of their personality — through national and international cooperation (Article 22); health, which includes food, clothing, housing, medical care, and social services (Article 25); education which strengthens the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms (Article 26); participation in the cultural life — arts and scientific advancement — of the community (Article 27); and, to a social and international order in which these rights and freedoms can be fully realised (Article 28).(11)

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) affords extra assurances to the human right to education, food, housing, health, and work.(12) Any state that has signed and ratified this treaty, as Rwanda has done, agrees to take steps — particularly through the adoption of legislative measures and economic and technical assistance to the maximum of its available resources — to progressively achieve the full realisation of these rights.(13) The ICESCR further safeguards such freedoms as rights to life, liberty, thought, peaceful assembly, family, and privacy.(14) Similar provisions are provided in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) ‘Draft Principles and Guidelines on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’.(15)

There are, however, a select few governments that have adopted domestic laws which ensure their citizens’ right to access the internet. For example, in 2009, the French Constitutional Courts overturned the controversial Hadopi Law, which had allowed French policing authorities to cut internet connections to illegal file-sharers in a bid to fight online piracy.(16) The Courts ruled that the Hadopi Law breached a citizen’s right to privacy, and furthermore declared that “free access” to online communications is a human right.(17) A limited number of other countries have also made such legal guarantees, namely: Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, and Spain.(18)

Defining human rights


According to Cerf, there are high standards for something to be considered a human right. “Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.”(19) With regards to Africa it is often argued that, in a context where basic healthcare, education, and adequate shelter and food are still out of reach for the majority of the populace, it is “frivolous” to consider the right to internet access a necessity when there are more “important” issues to confront.(20) Rwanda is labelled as ‘low’ on the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) and is ranked 167th out of 186 UN member countries (below Congo, Haiti and Djibouti).(21) According to UNDP figures, 63% of the population live below the international poverty line (US$ 1.25 in purchasing power parity terms per day).(22)

Doreen Akiyo Yomoah, a freelance writer and blogger for African Arguments, makes a compelling counterargument. She explains that changes happen concurrently, “which is why states have different ministries devoted to transportation…health, and education.” Moreover, she claims that Africa should not be characterised by poverty only, as the working, middle, and elite classes are all parts of society. She also adds that “it’s unrealistic to ask that everyone wait until hospitals are built in every corner of their respective countries before being able to access internet,” and that “internet access itself is an educational tool that can enhance development.”(23) Indeed, it has been estimated that 95% broadband penetration will translate into a 10-13% boost in gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Rwanda.(24)

Across many parts of Africa, the internet is changing the way people live their lives and contributing significantly to the fulfilment of many of the human rights guaranteed in the UDHR (and associated rights in the ICERCR, ICESCR and ACHPR), and not just with regards to education (Article 26). For example, in Kenya, a cluster of high-tech companies known as iHub is fostering a strong culture of innovation in Kenya’s ICT industry (Articles 20: right to assemble and Article 22: securing rights through international cooperation).(25) In Tanzania, the internet is enabling doctors to consult with experts in the region and beyond on medical challenges (Article 25: right to health, etc. and Article 27: right to scientific advancement, etc.).(26) In Uganda, an organisation called Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) is working to achieve full legal and social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people (Article 3: right to life, liberty, etc. and Article 19: right to opinion and expression).(27) Added to this growing list of innovative projects is the Rwandan Government’s E-soko initiative, an agricultural market information system deployed to provide farmers with up-to-date market price information (Article 21: right to public service and Article 28: right to social and international order in which rights can be realised).(28)

To counter such an interpretation that access to the internet is guaranteed implicitly within the UDHR (and associated covenants and treaties), Cerf illustrates his argument by way of an allegory. He says that in the past, if you did not have a horse, it was hard to make a living; his point was that the right, in such a case, was to make a living, not to have a horse.(29) It does seem somewhat ludicrous, and not context-relevant, to suggest that all people in Africa are entitled to a horse. At the same time, however, there is a tendency to conceptualise universal human rights as being unchanging and entirely divorced from material possessions.

Scott Edwards from Amnesty International contends that the reason why there are separate treaties like the ICERCR and ICESCR is simple: “We have them because the original guarantees as elaborated weren’t enough.”(30) Moreover, since the UDHR was published in 1948, our understanding of rights has evolved, and in many cases the UDHR has proven not to be effective enough to guarantee the rights enshrined therein.(31) Technological progress, asserts Edwards, has changed how people enjoy their rights and will require governments to reaffirm the inseparability of rights from the methods of enjoyment of those rights.(32)

This paper seeks to take Scott’s point one step further to suggest that human rights should be approached from a more flexible and temporary perspective: flexible in the sense that access to the internet should be incorporated into human rights protocols like the UDHR, and temporary in the sense that, even if explicit reference to the ‘internet’ becomes irrelevant in the future, that it can be adapted to whatever is more relevant to that future society’s needs. Although such a suggestion may sound like a ‘chop and change’ headache for those who produce human rights instruments, it is also hard to imagine that the internet will cease to exist entirely (at least not in the near future). Seen from another angle, the internet is simply an extended form of human communication, innate and fundamental to us all.

Defending human rights

The internet will not simply appear in Rwanda, nor will people’s lives be fundamentally transformed by its mere presence. It is a policy that has to be enacted, a service that has to be provided, and a tool that people must have the ability to access. It is, therefore, inherently wrapped up with both politics and business.

Under Kagame, Rwanda has achieved stability, as well as social and economic progress. This has been funded largely by foreign aid from the international community, which is still trying to make amends for its neglect during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.(33) Such funds make up nearly half of Rwanda’s national budget, but are in jeopardy as donors withhold money in response to the UN’s and US’ criticism of Rwanda’s military support for M23 rebels in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).(34) Kagame’s critics have been inclined to say that his private-public partnership with KT has less to do with altruism or any championing of human rights, and more to do with boosting his ego (35) and securing Rwanda’s economic future.

Similarly, there are concerns over who will benefit from such an investment. One resident of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, having been witness to a smaller scale project to provide free wireless internet to the city, said in an interview with The New Times, “I foresee it only being used by the few who have the devices.”(36) Rather than protecting the most marginalised and vulnerable — a core principle underlining the UDHR — Kagame’s initiative may illuminate and exacerbate the country’s social and economic inequalities. Another concern to bear in mind will be the power of KT, a corporate company with its own interests, to set prices on their services. This may mean that the internet would stay out of reach for almost two thirds (i.e., those currently living in poverty) of Rwanda’s population.

Much more concerning, as reported by Freedom House last year, is the government’s ever tightening control over digital media.(37) In the lead-up to the 2010 presidential election, authorities blocked the online version of an independent newspaper, and since then, other online outlets have been requested by the government to delete politically or ethnically sensitive material.(38) There exists legislation that, if passed by the Senate, would allow security and intelligence services to survey citizens’ emails,(39) a breach of Article 8 of the UDHR (the right not to be arbitrarily inferred upon). Furthermore, violence against online journalists appears to be on the rise.(40) In June 2010, an online journalist named Jean-Leonard Rugambage was murdered, and it is suspected that he was killed in punishment for critical reporting on the government.(41) If proven, such action by or on behalf of the government would be tantamount to a serious human rights violation.

Concluding remarks


Kagame has a unique opportunity to prove himself, not just as a digital visionary, but as a pioneer of the human right to access the internet. The benefit that the internet has provided to some of the world’s most marginalised and vulnerable populations has been great. The potential benefit that the internet could provide in the future is even greater. By initiating a project to bring high-speed, broadband internet to his citizens — the majority of whom still live in poverty — Kagame has shown that he is not shy of confronting challenges and difficult odds.

The next step would be to enshrine his citizens’ rights to access the internet in law. This would affirm the seriousness of the commitments he has made toward adopting progressive legislative measures as stipulated in the ICERCR. It would also make his position of president more accountable, because he would be legally bound to the promises he has made. It would protect Rwandan citizens from their rights being violated; for example, of having their right to freedom of expression through online media curtailed. These legal provisions could also protect citizens from being overcharged or given poor service by corporate companies, which would therefore provide the internet as a public service. Such a service, as a form of foreign aid, would also be a more sustainable and transparent form of development than the manner in which funding is currently received from the international community.

The current global political order has meant that Western countries have tended to dominate the discourse on universal human rights and in the production of human rights protocols and instruments. By asserting Rwandans’ right to access the internet, Kagame would be giving greater voice to the global South — not just within Africa, but across the world.



(1) Elizabeth Button is a Research Associate with CAI with an interest in African history with a focus on East and North East Africa, and the Kiswahili language. She is currently working at Camfed International in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Contact Elizabeth through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit ( rights.focus@consultancyafrica.com). Edited by Kate Morgan.
(2) Zuckerberg, M., ‘Is connectivity a human right?’, Facebook, 20 August 2013, https://fbcdn-dragon-a.akamaihd.net.
(3) For example, Bombay, S., ‘Zuckerberg’s “Internet as a human right” faces policy barriers’, Constitution Daily, 23 August 2013, http://blog.constitutioncenter.org; Levy, S., ‘Zuckerberg explains Facebook’s plan to get entire planet online’, Wired, 27 August 2013, http://www.wired.com.
(4) Olivarez-Giles, N., ‘United Nations report: Internet access is a human right’, Los Angeles Times, 3 June 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com; La Rue, F., ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion of expression’, United Nations’ General Assembly Report A/HRC/17/27, 16 May 2012, http://documents.latimes.com.
(5) Cerf, V., ‘Internet access is not a human right’, The New York Times, 4 January 2012,http://www.nytimes.com.
(6) Republic of Rwanda website, http://www.gov.rw.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Smith, D., ‘Rwanda strikes 4G internet deal with South Korean telecoms firm’, The Guardian, 11 June 2013, http://www.theguardian.com.
(9) Ibid.
(10) See, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, 10 December 1948, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.un.org.
(11) Ibid.
(12) ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’, 3 January 1976, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.ohchr.org.
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’, 23 March 1976, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.ohchr.org.
(15) ‘Draft Principles and Guidelines on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’, 24 October 2011, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights: Nairobi, http://www.achpr.org.
(16) For example, Wray, R., ‘French anti-filesharing law overturned’, The Guardian, 10 June 2009,http://www.theguardian.com.
(17) Ibid.
(18) ‘TEDx Athens – Kostas Grammatis – A human right’, TEDxTalks, 9 December 2010,http://www.youtube.com; Raad, G., ‘UN declares Internet access as a human right’, A Human Right, 5 June 2011, http://ahumanright.org.
(19) Cerf, V., ‘Internet access is not a human right’, The New York Times, 4 January 2012,http://www.nytimes.com.
(20) Yomoah, D., ‘Should access to the internet be a human right?’, African Arguments, 12 September 2013, http://africanarguments.org.
(21) UNDP website, http://hdr.undp.org.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Yomoah, D., ‘Should access to the internet be a human right?’, African Arguments, 12 September 2013, http://africanarguments.org.
(24) Smith, D., ‘Rwanda strikes 4G internet deal with South Korean telecoms firm’, The Guardian, 11 June 2013, http://www.theguardian.com.
(25) Graham, M. and Mann, L., 2013. Imagining a Silicon savannah? Technological and conceptual connectivity in Kenya’s BPO and software development sectors. The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countires, 56(2), pp. 1-19.
(26) Anderson, B., ‘Treatment by internet’, The East African, 17 March 2008,http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke.
(27) Smug website, http://www.smug.4t.com.
(28) Republic of Rwanda website, http://www.gov.rw.
(29) Cerf, V., ‘Internet access is not a human right’, The New York Times, 4 January 2012,http://www.nytimes.com.
(30) Edwards, S., ‘Is Internet access a human right?’, Human Rights Now Blog, 10 January 2012,http://blog.amnestyusa.org.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Burke, S., Calzonetti, C. and Fuisz, J., ‘Rwanda’s President Kagame: “We have a problem”’, CNN, 28 January 2013, http://amanpour.blogs.cnn.com.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Smith, D., ‘Rwanda strikes 4G internet deal with South Korean telecoms firm’, The Guardian, 11 June 2013, http://www.theguardian.com.
(36) Kanyesigye, F. and Gasore, B., ‘“Smart Kigali” brings free internet to city’, The New Times, 23 September 2013, http://www.newtimes.co.rw.
(37) ‘Freedom on the net 2012: A global assessment of internet and digital media’, Freedom House, 24 September 2012, http://www.freedomhouse.org.
(38) Ibid.
(39) Ibid.
(40) Ibid.
(41) ‘Freedom on the net 2011: A global assessment of internet and digital media’, Freedom House, 18 April 2011, http://www.freedomhouse.org.

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