Central Bank Digital Currencies (“CBDCs”) have the potential to radically transform the financial system, and all signs point to that transformation being a detriment to citizens around the globe. There are multiple human rights concerns surrounding their implementation and use.
Many people regularly use multiple forms of digital money. We make digital payments using credit, debit, and prepaid cards, as well as mobile payment apps like PayPal.
It’s not just payments that have gone digital. Nearly every financial institution offers services – from savings accounts to mortgages – via mobile applications.
So, money is already widely available in digital form. The current system works so well that few people ever take the time to worry about whether the digital money they are using is a liability of, for example, Visa or a liability of their bank.
So why are governments considering implementing CBDCs?
Unlike the current system of digital money, with CBDCs, digital money would be a liability of the central bank. In other words, governments have the direct responsibility to hold, transfer or otherwise remit those funds to the ostensible owner. This feature creates a direct link between citizens and the central bank. And it is this feature that opens the door to so many human rights concerns when it comes to the adoption of CBDCs.
These concerns cover issues of financial privacy, freedom, stability and cybersecurity. The Human Rights Foundation’s (“HRF’s”) CBDC Tracker website notes the following as the concerns regarding CBDCs:
- Sweeping financial surveillance. Around the world, governments routinely pressure banks and other financial institutions to supply customer information. From Canada to Russia, this practice has become all too common. The difference between what is experienced today and what would be experienced with a CBDC, however, is that the financial records would be on government databases by default. In other words, a CBDC could spell doom for what little protection remains because it would give governments complete visibility into every financial transaction.
- Restricting financial activity.
- Freezing funds.
- Seizing funds.
- Imposing negative interest rates. Proposals for CBDCs often tout negative interest rates as a benefit because it would offer policymakers “greater control” over the economy. For citizens, however, a negative interest rate amounts to a fine or tax for saving money.
- Disrupting financial stability.
- Disrupting cryptocurrency. Globally, governments have demonstrated that they want a CBDC specifically to hold on to their monopoly over national currencies. For instance, China banned cryptocurrencies just as its CBDC was launched; India announced its plans for a CBDC while simultaneously calling for a ban on cryptocurrency; and Nigeria prohibited banks from cryptocurrency transactions just as it launched its CBDC.
- Putting the economy at risk of cyberattacks.
- Creating a new tool for corruption.
For additional information on concerns regarding the risks of CBDCs, HRF recommends the Cato Institute’s webpage titled ‘The Risks of CBDCs: Why Central Bank Digital Currencies Shouldn’t Be Adopted’ and report titled ‘Central Bank Digital Currency: Assessing the Risks and Dispelling the Myths’.
HRF is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. On its home page, is an option to select a specific country from a drop-down list and read HRF’s assessment of the status of CBDCs for that country.
Selecting the United Kingdom as an example, the page begins with the summary as shown in the image below. What’s striking about this summary is the low score the UK has been given for freedom of movement.
HRF has based its freedom of movement metrics on the freedom of foreign movement, the freedom of movement for money and the freedom of movement for women. “There is a two-year lag with this data point due to the availability of the data that goes into it,” HRF states.
A more detailed explanation of this metric can be found in the 2023 Cato Institute and Fraser Institute Human Freedom Index (“HFI”) HERE. It relates to the year 2021.
Human freedom deteriorated severely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Most areas of freedom fell, including significant declines in the rule of law; freedom of movement, expression, association and assembly; and freedom to trade. After having fallen significantly in 2020, human freedom remained low during the second year of the pandemic.
The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being…Human Freedom Index 2023, Cato Institute
Returning to the status of CDBCs in the UK. Among others, HRF has this to say:
The United Kingdom is currently in the research phase. The Bank of England’s official statement said, “The Government and the Bank of England have not yet made a decision on whether to introduce a CBDC in the UK, and will engage widely with stakeholders on the benefits, risks and practicalities of doing so.” With respect to engagement, the Bank of England has since published both a discussion paper and a technical paper to explore various CBDC designs.
However, while these may only seem exploratory, it’s important to note that the Bank of England also said, “the Bank of England and HM Treasury judge there is likely to be a future need for, and benefits from, a digital pound.”
A 2023 consultation paper from the Bank of England said that a digital pound would require individuals to verify their identity, accounts to have capacity limits and varying levels of programmability. The Bank of England received over 50,000 responses from the public—primarily due to concerns about privacy, programmability, and the decline of cash.Human Rights Foundation CBDC Tracker (Country: United Kingdom), retrieved 12 January 2023