Identity must be a Human Right

According to the World bank there are 1.1 Billion people without an Identity, and most are poor women and children. Traditional Identity starts at birth when the mere fact that we even exist is recorded somewhere. Your birth certificate is the starting point of a lifelong journey to establish your identity as a human being born on this planet. Identity enables you to attend school, drive a car, get a job and buy a house.

But what if you don’t have any identity documents? What kind of life can you expect?

Sadly, there are 1.1 billion people on the planet that you can ask.

Without Identity there is no Opportunity

Imagine being a successful surgeon with a nice home, a family and a sense of pride in your accomplishments. You graduated medical school and have a solid standing in society. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? A surgeon’s life is an enviable one nearly everywhere, unless that surgeon lived in Damascus in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.

Tragically, the beautiful home was in the line of fire and bombed, destroying all identity documents including your medical school degree and credentials. To preserve your family’s lives, you fled Damascus and walked to another country – only to end up sharing a tent in a refugee camp that technically does not exist in any country.

Your stay at the refugee camp is ten years, because you cannot prove your identity after fleeing for your life without documents. Eventually, you are assigned a new ‘refugee’ identity and after great effort, your claim is accepted by a country like Canada or Germany. You are a victim of a war crime, but finally you’re on your way to a new home.

Upon arrival in your new country, you hope to get a job as a surgeon and start re-building your life in a democratic society. But it’s not easy. You must learn a new language, a new culture and unfortunately, you cannot get a job as a surgeon because you cannot prove you have an accredited medical school education. There’s no choice but to attempt to support your family by delivering newspapers and taking odd jobs.

A surgeon’s life is not so great anymore, simply because you can’t prove your identity.

No Identity No Access

Identity is fundamental because it’s used to define our rights and control our access to services. You may have the right to travel internationally if you are a Canadian citizen, but you can’t actually exercise that right without a passport. After spending years at school then years practicing medicine, you may be the best surgeon on the planet, but will not be hired by any hospital without producing your degree. 

Another characteristic of access or rights-based identifiers like passports, driver’s licenses and bank accounts, is that they are issued by someone else. Your identity as a driver is determined not by your ability to drive, but by a government department issuing you an official driver’s license.

So much is tied to our ability to officially prove our identity, how can Identity not be a human right?

Universal Human Rights are not so universal

There are 30 UN Universal Human Rights but Identity is not one of them. Article 6 states that ‘Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.’, but it does not proclaim that you have the right to an identity. Having the right to recognition means that your government must recognize you as a human being, however, it does not mean you can drive a car, open a bank account or perform.  

Recognizing a person before the law is up to the people that create the laws. The fact that a staggering 14% of the world’s population are still without an identity speaks to the unwillingness of governments to act on the promises they made when signing the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Which, by the way, 192 out of 195 countries have done.

If 98% of the countries on the planet have signed the UN Declaration, how can 14% of the world’s population, 1.1 Billion, people still not have an Identity?  Because it is not a UN declared human right.

No Identity no Rights

Let’s take a step further and consider if anyone can benefit from their human rights if they cannot prove they are human. How do I exercise my right to own a house as set out in article 17 if I cannot get a bank account or a mortgage?  Article 19 states that ‘Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country’, yet most public services can only be accessed by proving your identity.

The Problem might also be the Solution

In another article we wrote recently, we defined identity as a set of attributes that can be linked to a particular entity – quite literally, you are who other people say you are. If I were to ask you, ‘Who are you?, you could tell me your name and a little bit about yourself and I could do the same. By introducing ourselves to each other we have created a shared link of attributes that identify both of us to each other in a way that no government-issued document could. If, when I asked you who you are you showed me your driver’s license or your passport, do I really know you any better?

Our relationships define us and our ability to share those relationships with others establishes part of our identity. This gives each of us the ability to build our own digital identity by connecting with people on our own terms and asking them to validate who we are. This is a true self-sovereign identity that could be enabled by technology and owned by each of us.

Poor and undocumented people also have friends and family, who would vouch for them, but they have no convenient way to collect, aggregate and share that identity. Many poor people have smartphones and regularly conduct business using micropayment apps and get loans backed by their local communities. However, none of that goodwill for being a decent, reliable person, nor the ‘credit rating’ earned every time a loan is repaid is used to build an identity.

But it could.

Digital Identity must be self-sovereign to be Universal

There are many good programs like the World Economic Forum’s ID4D initiative trying to address the identity problem with financing as well as standards supporting digital identity programs in the developing world. 

One promising approach backed by the World Economic forum is AIDTech which in 2020, helped a woman in Tanzania become the first person to self-register the birth of her child on a blockchain. This simple act of registering the existence of her child may have assured a future for that child if we as a society can accept that identity is not any one attribute issued by any one entity. Identity is a set of attributes that include personal connections as measures of honesty and reputation that can only be issued by the person themselves.

If we want to make identity a truly universal human right available to everyone born on this planet, then we need to start by letting them register their own birth. The only way to accomplish that is if identity is self-sovereign, meaning that it is under the full possession and control of the person who issues it.

If it’s important just say it!

If being able to prove your Identity is the key to accessing so many of your Human Rights, why not expressly call it out in the Charter? Governments who signed the UN Charter should be expressly agreeing to guarantee all their citizens the 30 basic rights. By not, including a specific right to an ‘official’ identity needed to access those rights, it gives governments a way out.

Unfortunately, those governments that have failed their citizens for so many years are the same governments responsible for issuing new ID4D funded digital identities. The barrier to issuing identity to everyone is not a technological problem for governments, it is a moral one.

Less talking and more Walking

It’s time to stop playing politics with human lives and guarantee not only people’s human rights but their access to them. Manyone and our non-profit partner, The Peer Social Foundation believe that identity is a human right and that is why we are dedicated to researching and developing new technologies to enable people to create and store their own user-centric, self-sovereign digital identity –  free from government control.

An official identity should be a UN Human Right, and self-sovereign issued identities should count. Identity based on relationships of trust are just as valid as identities based on access to services, but we believe, even more real.

If we cannot rely on our governments to guarantee our human rights, then we must have a recognized self-sovereign way to do it ourselves.