ARTICLE 19 at the UN #HRC32: what is at stake for free expression?

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Andrew Smith

09 Jun 2016


On 13 June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) begins its 32nd Session, which will culminate in the adoption of resolutions and decisions, and the appointment of new special procedures, on 30 June and 1 July. During this Session, the HRC also celebrates its 10th birthday.

 The HRC at 10

To mark this significant milestone, the 32nd Session will open with a high-level anniversary panel discussion. As we’ve explained, the anniversary comes at a troubling time for freedom of expression worldwide: impunity for murdered journalists and bloggers, arbitrary arrest of government critics, blocking of social media sites, and the adoption of laws to further reduce the space for dissent and dialogue.

The HRC has made significant advances in setting the global standard on freedom of expression, in particular through the mandate of the UN special rapporteur. In its resolutions, the HRC has set out frameworks to address impunity for attacks against journalists, to protect civic space and rights in protest, to protect human rights online, and to tackle religion-based discrimination and violence by promoting free expression. In the coming decade, the Council must ensure these are not the high watermark of the institution’s accomplishments.  

The challenges faced by the HRC as a platform for action against human rights violations and abuses remain significant: attacks on the universality of human rights, failure to ensure accountability for the worst violators of free expression (including for HRC member states), and a widening “implementation gap” between international commitments and national realties. Unresolved, these threaten to undermine the institution’s credibility.

During the high-level anniversary panel, the HRC must engage in a serious assessment of its own shortcomings and how to address them. We have joined ISHR and other NGOs in setting out a written submission to HRC32 with recommendations (in three parts: 1, 2, and 3) which we hope to see taken on.

Free expression priorities at HRC32

There is a tightly packed agenda for HRC32, with a huge range of resolutions and important reports. We will be urging States to engage substantively with the topics up for discussion, and avoid the obstructive tactics used by some States in the March session (HRC31).

The priorities for ARTICLE 19’s advocacy at HRC32 include:

  • Calling on states and the tech sector to do more to protect freedom of expression
  • Securing a resolution on the internet and human rights
  • Securing a resolution to expand civil society space
  • Renewing the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association’s mandate
  • Creating a new mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Addressing freedom of expression in country situations of concern

We have also teamed up with civil society partners and other key stakeholders to deliver three side events: on access to information and human rights; the internet, private actors and freedom of expression; and on the safety of journalists.

You can follow @article19un on twitter for live updates and use #HRC32 to join the discussion, or watch the session live.

States, the tech sector, and freedom of expression

The Internet is increasingly the frontline in the battle for freedom of expression, and is a space that is largely created, maintained and operated by private actors. However, the role that these actors play in protecting and promoting freedom of expression, and the pressures they’re subjected to by states to restrict access to information, has received little attention from the HRC.

A new project by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, seeks to address this gap. His annual report, to be presented and debated at the HRC on 16 June, maps the key actors and considerations in this field, making important initial recommendations which will shape this debate going forwards.

Kaye’s report raises concerns on the proliferation of ‘cybercrime’ laws with vague and disproportionate content-based restrictions targeting online speech. It also examines how States, as well as other industries, pressure tech companies to censor information hosted or transmitted through their services. Decisions taken by tech sector actors, in particular in enforcing their terms of service, also have profound implications for the enjoyment of freedom of expression online.

For the first time, the Special Rapporteur addresses how organisations which develop and maintain the Internet’s infrastructure must do more to protect freedom of expression. The report should help bridge the gap between the human rights and technical communities, whose respective lack of expertise in each other’s fields often means crucial human rights issues are overlooked.

Our short documentary “Net of Rights”, developed with the organisation Coding Rights, explains why human rights should matter to the Internet’s engineers, and how the decisions they take affect freedom of expression. The film is a useful primer for those engaging at HRC32 on this report.

For more detail, read our briefing on the Special Rapporteur’s report, and our digital team’s blog on the particular significance of the report’s technical aspects. You can also attend our side event with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) on Wednesday 15 June, where the Special Rapporteur will discuss his report with leading actors from the tech sector. 

Resolution: Human Rights on the Internet

At HRC32, Sweden will introduce a resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet”, supported by a core group of Brazil, Nigeria, Tunisia, Turkey and the United States of America.

In negotiations, ARTICLE 19 will urge all states to maintain consensus on the HRC’s mantra that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online”, which has echoed globally and forms a central tenet of ongoing work on online and digital rights.  

The new resolution will build upon previous consensus-based HRC resolutions: res 20/8 (2012) and res 26/13 (2014), and will include a focus on the need to protect human rights online to achieve Agenda 2030 on sustainable development, and more closely examine the digital divide affecting women and persons with disabilities.

In addition to welcoming these developments, we hope to see the resolution take a comprehensive and progressive approach to drive forwards HRC standards on online freedoms. There are pressing concerns that the HRC cannot ignore, including “cyber crime” laws to censor legitimate online expression, impunity for murders of bloggers, attacks on the security of communications and encryption, surveillance, and attempts to deliberately shut-off access to the Internet – including during elections and at times of unrest.

The resolution should also welcome the Special Rapporteur’s on-going contribution to the defence of online freedoms, and substantively reflect the recommendations of his report to HRC32.

Report and Resolution: expanding civil society space

At HRC32, the High Commissioner will present his highly anticipated “practical recommendations” on creating and maintaining a safe and enabling environment for civil society. Based on extensive consultations, in which ARTICLE 19 participated, the report identifies five “essential ingredients” to “optimize civil society’s transformative potential”:

  1. A robust legal framework compliant with international standards that safeguards public freedoms and effective access to justice;
  2. A political environment conducive to civil society work;
  3. Access to information;
  4. Avenues for participation by civil society in decision-making processes;
  5. Long-term support and resources for civil society.   

The report was called for by HRC resolution 27/31 on civil society space, adopted by consensus in September 2014. That resolution was a vital and timely response to the shrinking of civil society space; it included strong language on the right and ability of civil society to collectively solicit, receive and utilise resources, the importance of civil society space to marginalised groups, and on the effective participation of civil society in decision-making that affects them.

Building from resolution 27/31 (and its predecessor 24/21), and the High Commissioner’s report, Ireland together with Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia, will introduce a comprehensive follow-up resolution during HRC32.

Defending the standards set out in HRC resolution 27/31, as we did with our civic space initiative partners in 2014, and seeking to build on them, will be at the centre of our agenda in the coming weeks.

Mandate Renewal: Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, held by Maina Kiai since its establishment in 2010, will be up for renewal at HRC32. Special procedure mandates normally run for three years, and therefore require triennial renewal by the HRC. Ensuring that this resolution passes by consensus, and does justice to the mandate’s excellent work over the last six years, is essential.

Maina Kiai has been uncompromising in shining a spotlight on violations and abuses of assembly and association rights, as crackdowns on protests and civic space have escalated worldwide. His contribution to addressing the normative gap in understanding these rights has also been substantial, including his recent “practical recommendations for the management of assemblies”.

On June 17, Maina Kiai will present his annual report, focused on fundamentalism’s impact on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association. The report, defining “fundamentalism” as an “intolerance of difference”, concludes that the exercise of assembly and association rights are often targeted by fundamentalists, and that protecting these rights equally for all is essential to challenge intolerance, discrimination and violence. Kiai also warns against too readily limiting the assembly and association rights of fundamentalists, while also raising particular concern about the abuse of national security or “countering extremism” laws to illegitimately limit these rights. 

Debate: Responding to violence and discrimination against LGBT and intersex people

Two years ago, ARTICLE 19 joined more than 500 other organisations in telling the HRC “the time has come” for action on violence and discrimination against people on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

The HRC responded, requesting what would be a significant second report on this topic, documenting the wide-ranging human rights abuses against people on SOGI grounds, including violations of their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and public participation. Though adopted by vote, Res 27/32 enjoyed significantly more support than its 2011 predecessor.

However, notwithstanding these reports, the UN High Commissioner’s office has itself recognised the need for a systematic and institutional response to violence and discrimination against people on the grounds of SOGI.

With the leadership of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, (“the LAC5”) this may become a reality at HRC32. A resolution to be tabled by the LAC5 will explore creating a special procedure mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity, to give sustained attention to the human rights abuses and violations people face because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

ARTICLE 19 will join others, including organisations ARC International and ILGA, in advocating for the creation of a special procedure mechanism on SOGI at HRC32.

Debate: Freedom of expression in country situations of concern

During HRC32, numerous country situations, including many where the situation for freedom of expression is grave, will be discussed.

There will be a particular focus on Eastern and Horn of Africa. There will be sessions on Burundi and South Sudan, and the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea is due to present its findings, where evidence of crimes against humanity call for urgent accountability. These abuses have been facilitated by a total absence of media freedom in the country since 2001. The outcome of the Universal Periodic Review of Somalia will also be adopted, ahead of which we raised serious concerns regarding the situation for safety of journalists in the country.

ARTICLE 19 will also bring attention to the deteriorating situation for freedom of expression online in Russia, and support calls for greater HRC scrutiny on Egypt, Turkey, and Bangladesh.

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