ARTICLE 19 at the UN #HRC33: what is at stake for free expression?

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Andrew Smith

12 Sep 2016


Today, 13 September, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 33rd Session (HRC33) – the UN’s pinnacle human rights body is expected to act on some of the world’s most pressing freedom of expression violations and concerns. 

The agenda is tightly packed. It will culminate on the 29 and 30 September with the adoption of resolutions and decisions, and the appointment of new special procedures.  

 ARTICLE 19’s priorities for HRC33 include: 

  •  Securing a strong resolution on the safety of journalists
  • Tackling the mainstreaming of hate: enhancing the Istanbul Process and implementing the Rabat Plan of Action
  • Highlighting the free expression impact of measures to prevent “violent extremism” 
  • Building the UN’s standards on public participation
  • Putting the spotlight on free expression in Turkey, the Gambia, Somalia, Cambodia, and elsewhere …

It is worth re-reading our round-up of the last session (#HRC32), where clear wins for civil society space and freedom of expression online were matched by concerted attacks on the universality of human rights. The membership of the Human Rights Council remains the same, so similar dynamics can be expected at #HRC33.  

You can follow @article19un for live updates, check out our HRC publications herewatch the Session live, and use #HRC33 to join the discussion.

Resolution on Safety of Journalists

Impunity for murders and attacks on journalists is one of the gravest threats to freedom of expression worldwide. In 2015, UNESCO reported 114 killings of journalists, bloggers and media workers across all regions of the world. Impunity for these killings remains a predominant trend, with convictions only in 10% of cases

Austria, with Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia, will seek to address the safety of journalists through a new resolution at HRC33. It has been two years since the HRC adopted resolution 27/5 by consensus, calling on States to take specific actions to address impunity for attacks on journalists. The new resolution will be adopted ahead of the UN’s third International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, on 2 November 2016. 

UNESCO’s statistics expose the international community’s failure to implement existing HRC commitments on the safety of journalists. A stronger, more comprehensive, HRC resolution can further elaborate human rights standards and renew states’ commitments, but alone it will not provide journalists with the security to do their work: it must be matched by even stronger political will to act on impunity and change national realities. 

In June 2016, UN special procedures condemned rhetoric from then-president-elect of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, implying that journalists who were killed were to blame for their own murders. This brings into question whether Duterte, now President, will secure justice for the 2009 killings of 32 journalists and media works in the Ampatuan Maguindanao Massacre. This case is emblematic of the challenges faced. 

The HRC must also recognise that the dangers facing journalists go beyond physical attacks. Journalists rely on a secure and enabling environment to do their work, yet in 2014, approximately 221 journalists were imprisoned. Journalists cannot rely on authorities to keep them safe if those same authorities seek to put them in prison. States’ mechanisms of censorship must be dismantled - repealing or amending national security, public order, criminal insult and defamation laws, to create a secure and enabling environment for journalists.

The digital security of journalists - a priority concern detailed in UNESCO’s 2015 world trends report – has too long been overlooked by the HRC. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has called upon States to ensure strong safeguards for encryption and online anonymity, underscoring that these tools are essential to journalists, in particular to protecting their confidential sources. The HRC must integrate strong digital security standards to their attempts to ensure the safety of journalists.   

ARTICLE 19 will be following the negotiations of this resolution closely, to ensure a strong and comprehensive text to leverage our national-level advocacy for the protection of journalists. Through numerous oral statements we will be highlighting national cases where action to implement HRC standards on the safety of journalists is desperately needed. 

Side Event

Join ARTICLE 19, UNESCO and the Permanent Mission of Austria for a panel discussion on the Safety of Journalists, Room XXIV, 13:00 - 14:30, 23 September. 

Tackling the Mainstreaming of Hate

Hate is being mainstreamed”, warns UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and more must be done to counter increasingly populist, deceitful and discriminatory political rhetoric in all parts of the world. 

Not only is there impunity for even clear incitement to discriminatory violence, so-called “hate speech” laws are also abused to target legitimate dissent, including of individuals speaking out for inclusion and diversity. Movements to counter discriminatory hatred are thwarted by tightening restrictions on civil society space.

States have UN instruments at their disposal to tackle this phenomenon. HRC resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action provide concrete legal and policy measures to address the root causes of the populist hate that demagogues curate and feed off: both the resolution and the Rabat Plan of Action urge states towards creating an enabling environment for counter-speech, inclusive dialogue and political participation for all.  

During HRC33, we will be calling on States to respond to the mainstreaming of hate by ensuring protections for freedom of expression and equality: the Istanbul Process on the implementation of resolution 16/18 must be enhanced, and this must be informed by the guidance set out in the Rabat Plan of Action. 

Read more 

ARTICLE 19 Special Report on the 6th Session of the Istanbul Process

ARTICLE 19 briefing: “UN HRC Res 16/18: consolidating consensus through implementation” in EN | FR | AR

Blog-post for the Universal Rights Group: “Implementing Resolution 16/18: the role of Rabat and the importance of civil society space”

Preventing Violent Extremism and Freedom of Expression

As a consequence of a resolution last September on preventing violent extremism and human rights, two reports of the High Commissioner will be presented at HRC33, one outlining best practices and lessons learned on human rights and preventing violent extremism, and another summarising a panel discussion on the same topic.  

The High Commissioner’s reports make clear that, to be effective and sustainable, any initiatives to protect national security must comply with international human rights law and not be discriminatory. They reflect concerns ARTICLE 19 raised with civil society partners in discussions at the UN on preventing violent extremism. 

The OHCHR reports  make clear that concepts such as “extremism” and “radicalisation” can undermine human rights where used to restrict non-violent activities

In relation to measures seeking to prevent “violent extremism” online, the OHCHR expresses concern with complete network shutdowns or disruptions, blocking access to certain platforms or restricting individuals’ Internet access to them, as well as with blocking or removal of online content. Such measures are “at odds with the individualised assessment required under human rights law. States have to provide evidence-based justification of the necessity and proportionality of such interference with freedom of expression.” The OHCHR also underscores that “there is a need for much greater transparency by States to clarify what content they are filtering, blocking or removing and on what basis.”  

The reports also raise concerns that “host providers and social media platforms face increasing pressure to actively monitor and police content generated or disseminated by users”, citing the recent report and recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression on this issue. 

Mexico will lead a resolution at HRC33 on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism. ARTICLE 19 will be advocating that the resolution must reflect the standards outlined by the High Commissioner.  

Building UN Standards on Public Participation 

The Czech Republic, together with Botswana, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Peru, will lead a resolution on the right to public participation. Though the right to participate in public affairs is a stand-alone right under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it is closely related to freedom of expression and information, and essential to sustaining democracy and civil society space. 

The resolution builds upon resolution 30/9, with a focus on the participation of groups often marginalised from the political process, in particular women and persons with disabilities. The resolution seeks to build upon an expert workshop at the UN in Geneva on public participation, including by calling upon OHCHR to develop guidelines to states on how to best implement the right to participate in public affairs.

ARTICLE 19 will be advocating for a strong resolution that calls for OHCHR to develop comprehensive and progressive standards on the right to public participation.  


ARTICLE 19 will be joining our Civic Space Initiative partners (ICNL, ECNL, CIVICUS, and World Movement for Democracy) for an event on public participation and civil society space. Details to follow!  

Country situations of concern

During HRC33, ARTICLE 19 will be putting the spotlight on a range of countries where the situation for freedom of expression has deteriorated or remains dire. 

Priorities include: 


ARTICLE 19 will be urging states to raise the human rights situation in Turkey under Item 4 of the HRC’s agenda. 

While recognising the need to ensure accountability for failed 15 July 2016 coup attempt, during which 265 people were killed, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the present state of emergency is being abused to suppress legitimate dissent and media freedoms. It is estimated that 114 journalists have been arbitrarily detained under the state of emergency in just three months. Many media outlets have been forced to close. 

The HRC must act to urge Turkey to release arbitrarily detained journalists, and fully restore protections for the right to freedom of expression.   

The Gambia

Ahead of elections in the Gambia, ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the situation for freedom of expression remains dire in the country, and in need of immediate international attention.  

Side event

Join ARTICLE 19’s West Africa Director, Fatou Jagne, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to discuss the human rights situation in the Gambia, Room XXVII, 14:30 – 16:00, Wednesday September 14. 


The HRC will consider a resolution on the country situation in Somalia, under Item 10 of its agenda. We will be urging the sponsors to include strong language on enhancing protections for freedom of expression in the country, in particular to address impunity for killings of journalists. These concerns have been reiterated by UNSOM and OHCHR in their recent country report on freedom of expression in Somalia, pointing out that in addition to 30 journalists killed between August 2012 and June 2016, there have been 120 cases of arbitrary and arrest and detention between January 2014 and July 2016.  


ARTICLE 19 will be supporting increased scrutiny on the freedom of expression situation in Cambodia. We are particularly concerned at the deteriorating situation for Environmental Human Rights Defenders in the country – since the murder of Kem Ley earlier in 2016, at least 12 other defenders have been attacked or threatened for speaking out against environmental degradation. 

We will be drawing attention to these cases, and calling for action to ensure accountability. 

UPR Outcomes 

ARTICLE 19 will also be responding to the adoption of Universal Periodic Review outcomes for Tajikistan and Tanzania. During these adoptions, we urge all states to include detailed calls for action to improve protections for freedom of expression in both countries.  

We will also be supporting initiatives to bring attention to the freedom of expression situation in Bahrain, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. 

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