UN HRC31: The Free Expression Round-Up

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Andrew Smith

07 Apr 2016


The 31st Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) concluded on 24 March, after four weeks of intense meetings and negotiations, during which more than 3000 statements were read out, and 38 resolutions adopted. As the dust settles on #HRC31, ARTICLE 19 reflects on what was gained for freedom of expression, what challenges were faced, and what all of this means for those defending this right on the ground.

Ahead of the 31st Session, we laid out what was at stake for freedom of expression. This year, the HRC’s 47-seat membership is made up of states which are among the worst violators of freedom of expression, so we were expecting challenges.

The HRC is this year celebrating its 10th anniversary, giving the opportunity for reflections on the institution’s effectiveness in delivering action to prevent human rights violations and abuses, and to ensure accountability.

In his opening address to the Session, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told States that in this anniversary year, the human rights situation in the world “cries out for action, and decisive and cooperative leadership in defence of vital principles”.

Several states showed the kind of decisive leadership we expect during the Session.

Resolutions addressing country situations will be essential for giving scrutiny and accountability to the human rights situations in Myanmar and Iran, at times of both increased opportunities and challenges for freedom of expression.

Thematic resolutions on peaceful protest, human rights defenders, freedom of religion or belief, and combatting religious intolerance, violence and discrimination, all withstood attack to provide useful tools to states and civil society for the protection of freedom of expression, where it is most at risk.

This progress in defense of fundamental freedoms stood in sharp contrast to efforts by some states, though in the minority, who remained intent on undermining the universality of human rights, on and diverting international scrutiny from their own human rights violations.

Initiatives on freedom of expression, and related rights, became the target of repressive governments, who made clear that their greatest fear at home, and indeed at the HRC, is independent and oppositional opinion. A barrage of hostile amendments to resolutions on peaceful protest and on human rights defenders, led by Russia and others, demonstrated this par excellence.

The return of Egypt’s resolution on the “effects of terrorism on human rights” demonstrated how, under the pretext of national security, the universality of human rights and freedom of expression is increasingly threatened, a concern reflected in discussions at the HRC on countering and preventing “violent extremism”.

Managing assemblies: expert guidance must be implemented

The adoption of the resolution on “the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests” at the 31st Session will be crucial in our work to protect freedom of expression in protests worldwide. 

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The adoption of the resolution, led by Switzerland, Turkey and Costa Rica, demonstrates widespread support of States for a landmark report by UN experts on how to manage assemblies.

Compiled by the Special Rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the report responds to serious concerns on violations of human rights in the context of protests worldwide, and provides clear principles on the framework for protecting human rights ahead of, during, and after protests, building on the foundations of HRC resolution 25/38. It includes recommendations on, among other issues, “authorisation” procedures, excessive use of force, surveillance, attacks on journalists, and accountability for violations. 

The HRC resolution is a significant political commitment by States to the use of the UN experts’ work, as well as their recommendations to improve the protection of human rights in protests, including by changing laws and practices to comply with states’ existing international obligations.

Importantly, attempts to strip the resolution of important language on states’ obligations under international human rights law, and references to the important work of the UN experts (led by Russia among others) were defeated.

Resolution 16/18: Consensus holds, but challenge lies in implementation

For the fifth consecutive year, the HRC maintained consensus on the resolution on ‘combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief’.

This is the follow-up to the landmark 2011 resolution 16/18, which established a consensus-based framework for addressing discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief through positive policy action targeting the root causes of this phenomenon, including by opening space for dialogue and discussion. 

This was one of ARTICLE 19’s main priorities at HRC31.

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Throughout the 31st Session, we argued that implementation of the resolution’s built-in action plan is essential if violence and discrimination against persons on the basis of religion or belief is to be effectively prevented and countered. 

As outlined in the OHCHR’s Rabat Plan of Action, this requires the mobilisation of all stakeholders to bring national laws, policies, and practice in line with international human rights law. Crucially, this necessitates the repeal of laws that restrict civil society space, including blasphemy laws. We called on states to lead by example.

Consensus on resolution 16/18 can only become entrenched if the Istanbul Process is re-energised as a practical, inclusive, and cross-regional forum for exchanging national experience and best practice to address the root causes of violence and discrimination. Reporting on implementation to OHCHR must also be enhanced.

States must protect defenders of economic, social and cultural rights

The resolution on “protecting human rights defenders, whether individuals, groups or organs of society, addressing economic, social and cultural rights” was led by Norway, and was adopted with broad support from all regions.

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Attempts led by Russia and China to strip the resolution of its most important aspects through 30 hostile amendments was rejected in a series of defeating votes. Russia criticised civil society for waging an “online defamation” campaign against them, though even the Ambassador of Mexico labelled Russia’s tactics “absurd”. International standards are clear that states are not people with reputational rights, and therefore cannot be defamed (online or offline).

The resolution will be a significant tool in ARTICLE 19’s protection work. We will continue working hard to ensure that the HRC protects the right to freedom of expression for all people, including where this means criticising states, whether at the national level or at the HRC itself.

“Terrorism” resolution threatens human rights

We expressed deep concern at the adoption of a resolution on “the effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of human rights”, which threatens international human rights law, including on freedom of expression, and provides potential justification for abusive “counter-terrorism” measures. 

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The resolution was led by Egypt with the support of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Jordan, and was adopted by a vote, with 14 votes against, 5 abstentions and 28 votes in support.

The resolution fails to meet the needs of the victims of terrorism, and instead instrumentalises their suffering to distract international scrutiny from the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt, which was brought into sharp focus during the Session.

The serious and global challenges posed by terrorist attacks require a united response from the UN that safeguards and strengthens the international human rights system. This divisive resolution does the opposite, and should be abandoned in favour of the consensus-based approach outlined in the parallel resolution on countering terrorism and human rights, led by Mexico.

ARTICLE 19 welcomed the adoption of the Mexico-led resolution by consensus, and the extension of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism and human rights for three more years. We also welcome those states that voted against the Egypt-led resolution, and in future sessions will call on all states to unite behind the Mexican-led initiative.

Preventing “violent extremism” and human rights

ARTICLE 19 led advocacy on the potentially negative impact of certain initiatives for preventing “violent extremism” (PVE) regarding human rights, including freedom of expression.

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On 17 March, the HRC held a high level panel discussion on “violent extremism” and human rights, as a consequence of Resolution 30/15 at the 30th Session.

We raised concerns on behalf of a group of civil society organisations during this panel, particularly that “violent extremism” lacks an agreed definition, that there is no shared understanding of its causes, and that vagueness opens the door to human rights violations in the name of “prevention”. 

While we highlighted that journalists and other independent voices have been the targets of terrorist attacks, we also increasingly see governments targeting protected dissent under the guise of “PVE”. These concerns extend to online censorship and surveillance, as well as attempts to undermine encryption and anonymity.

We warned that even where well intentioned, PVE can be counter-productive and even harmful, discriminating against and alienating the communities they supposedly seek to help. 

Special Rapporteur on Privacy delivers first report

After campaigning for the establishment of the UN Special Rapporteur on privacy, ARTICLE 19 was pleased to welcome mandate-holder Joseph Cannataci’s first report to the HRC.

The report sets out a 10 Point Action plan for the mandate, as well as a critique of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill.

ARTICLE 19 looks forward to continued cooperation with Joseph Cannataci in the execution of his important mandate.

HRC renews mandate to keep scrutiny on Iran

ARTICLE 19 welcomed the renewal at the HRC of the Special Rapporteur mandate on Iran. We reiterated that Iran’s increased diplomatic engagement over the nuclear issue should not distract international scrutiny from their worsening freedom of expression record.

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In Iran, there has been a crackdown on journalists and social media users ahead of the February 2016Parliamentary elections, bringing the total number of individuals imprisoned to 47. At least six artists, writers, and musicians have also been arbitrarily detained and/or prosecuted since October 2015. 

Increased surveillance of Internet use, the closure of Internet cafes, and proposals for even more draconian legislation affecting freedom of expression online, must continue to be monitored by the Special Rapporteur.

Free Expression in Myanmar

Notwithstanding a change of government in Myanmar, ARTICLE 19 emphasised during the HRC Session that the situation for freedom of expression requires continued scrutiny under Item 4, and the opening of an OHCHR office in the country without delay.

The necessity of the mandate renewal was demonstrated by the government of Myanmar’s response to its Universal Periodic Review, during which we highlighted the priorities for improving freedom of expression in the country.

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Significantly, the resolution renewing the mandate calls on the Special Rapporteur, in collaboration with the government, to develop benchmarks to measure human rights progress. We encouraged reference to the annex of Yanghee Lee’s report that sets out key legal reforms needed to bring the country in line with obligations under international human rights law, including on the right to freedom of expression.

Universal Periodic Review

During HRC31, we also made submissions to the Universal Periodic Reviews of Uganda, and South Sudan.

We call on all states to ensure that both countries receive specific and targeted recommendations to concretely address freedom of expression concerns.

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