An open letter to the RightsCon community about RightsCon Costa Rica and what comes next
From June 5-8, 2023, we hosted the 12th iteration of RightsCon in San José, Costa Rica, where over 8,300 participants joined us for more than 600 sessions in-person and online. RightsCon Costa Rica was our first hybrid event and a much anticipated return in-person after three years of online-only convening.
While we would usually follow RightsCon by reporting on the outcomes of our time together and launching our save-the-date for next year, our team and Access Now as a whole have instead taken a moment to pause and reflect.
We’re writing to you to explain the challenges and exclusion some participants faced, to apologize and take accountability for our role, and to share some thoughts on the road ahead for RightsCon.
What happened and how it impacted the RightsCon community
We believe it is important for all of us to understand the systemic barriers and harms that participants can experience in attempting to access physical convening spaces like RightsCon. Civil society is threatened when people with vital perspectives and lived experiences are consistently prevented from meeting in-person to set the agenda for a more rights-respecting future, when their voices are stifled, and when they are excluded from networking and meeting opportunities.
In the lead up to RightsCon Costa Rica, the visa-on-arrival process that we facilitated with the Costa Rican authorities in order to mitigate visa-related barriers to travel, failed. Additionally, Costa Rican authorities unexpectedly ended the existing visa-free regime with one country shortly before RightsCon. As a result, over 300 participants, predominantly from the Global Majority, who had applied to the visa-on-arrival program were not granted visas and instead were excluded from participating in RightsCon the way they had intended and planned.
This meant that key voices from the Global Majority – including Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia – as well as from at-risk communities facing conflict, crisis, repression, criminalization, and marginalization around the world, were absent from our gathering in San José.
For participants who were able to travel, some of them experienced border violence, such as racial profiling, arbitrary detention, and racist or xenophobic harassment while in transit and upon entering the country.
Our role and responsibility as convenors
As the conveners of RightsCon, we are sorry and take accountability for the harms that participants experienced.
Despite our efforts, it is clear that we weren’t adequately prepared to support the people directly impacted by visa inequity, by the failure of the visa-on-arrival process, by passport discrimination, or by racist harassment at borders. While we had an internal team of lawyers and security experts, and partnered with a local destination management company to help participants in case of any issues upon their arrival at the Costa Rican airport, our efforts fell short.
During the week of RightsCon, we are conscious we relied on the labor of impacted participants to help guide our response towards those in crisis – work that should not have been borne by them as they simultaneously processed the trauma of their own experiences.
It’s our responsibility to anticipate and work to mitigate the barriers participants face as they move through all stages of the participation process, from deciding to join us (be it in-person or online), ensuring connectivity, providing guidance on obtaining visas, and traveling to and from RightsCon.
One lesson that we are learning is that we cannot wait until the scale of a problem is this large before reacting. We need to be more aware and open about where we don’t have power to move the needle – passport and border discrimination are pervasive, systemic issues globally. But we should be more responsible with the power we do have, and act promptly, to support our community in crossing borders safely and with dignity.
We need to do better. As organizers, we must design experiences, processes, and spaces that amplify the expertise, knowledge, and leadership of individuals and communities who historically have been, and continue to be, marginalized in global convening spaces. We must also go beyond access, and do more to ensure that participants are seen, heard, and listened to in these spaces.
Where we are now and where we’re headed
We’re now at an inflection point, which provides us with an opportunity to reflect and reimagine RightsCon as a safer, more caring, and more equal space, together. While we’re proud of the community that we’ve built, how it’s grown, and what we’ve accomplished over the last 12 years, a lot has changed in the world. As a result, our convening model will also need to evolve.
To us, this means continuing to invest in what we’ve done well and deconstructing what we haven’t. While we plan to bring our next event to Asia – in line with our policy of rotating the regions where we host RightsCon, in order to make the event accessible and highlight the work of local and regional digital rights activists – we are still working on when and how best to reconvene.
As a starting point, reimagining RightsCon to us means:
- Fostering more transparency in decision-making around where and when RightsCon is hosted;
- Reprioritizing where our resources go and how we support the community, including redesigning our Community Support Fund, which covers online and in-person participation, and revisiting our approach to visa support; and
- Revisiting the timeline, size, and structure of the RightsCon cycle and program to reduce barriers to organizing and participation.
What comes next: sharing our plans and hearing from you
In the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing our plan for the next RightsCon, alongside information about how we came to that decision, and how the decision-making process will adapt in the future.
We’ll also be reaching out with a timeline and different avenues for you to join us in conversation about redesigning core elements of RightsCon, including but not limited to, surveys and open community calls. We acknowledge the labor this work requires and hope you will engage with us in whichever way makes sense to you.
We’re grateful to those in our community – predominantly Black and brown women activists – who are holding us accountable and in doing so making it clear that we must recalibrate. In particular, we want to thank Laurence Meyer (Digital Freedom Fund) and Jennifer Kamau (International Women* Space) for their role in guiding our response during the week of RightsCon.
In the meantime, if you have reflections to share about your experience at RightsCon, we want to hear from you: reach out to us anytime by email at [email protected].
The RightsCon team, including Adriana, Daphne, Elan, Igor, Jiye, Kristi, Luis, Nikki, Reetz, and Sarah, together with the Access Now team