ARTICLE 19 at the UN #HRC31: what is at stake for free expression?

ARTICLE 19 at the UN #HRC31: what is at stake for free expression? - Protection

Participants at a 35th Session of the Human Rights Council. 6 June 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

This week, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) begins its 31st Session, which after four weeks of intense negotiation and debate will culminate in the adoption of resolutions on 23 and 24 March. It is a tightly packed agenda.

In 2016, the HRC celebrates its 10th birthday, and later this year, States will celebrate 50 years since the UN General Assembly adopted two of the most crucial human rights instruments: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

However, in his opening remarks at the 31st Session of the HRC, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described how these milestones are set against a backdrop of “accumulating departures from” the international institutions and legal frameworks “which States built to codify their behaviour”. The High Commissioner stressed that these anniversaries at the HRC demand a response built on more than rhetoric: “it cries out for action, and decisive and cooperative leadership in defence of vital principles.”

Freedom of expression will be a recurring theme at the 31st Session, featuring in numerous thematic and country-specific human rights discussions, as well as being a focus of several anticipated resolutions. However, since many of the 47 States making up the HRC’s membership in 2016 are not champions of freedom of expression, it looks to be a challenging session.

The priorities for ARTICLE 19’s advocacy at HRC31 include:

  • Tackling intolerance and protecting freedom of expression
  • Protecting human rights in protests
  • Preventing “violent extremism”
  • Human rights defenders
  • The right to privacy
  • Freedom of expression in country situations of concern

You can follow @article19un on twitter for live updates and use #HRC31 to join the discussion, or watch the Session live.

Here’s what to expect:

Tackling intolerance and protecting freedom of expression:

In opening the 31st Session, High Commissioner Zeid made clear that tackling all forms of intolerance is a priority, in a climate of escalating xenophobia in many parts of the world.

The High Commissioner observed that “anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric scars societies. They might offer instant political gratification in some quarters, but they result in divisions that cut deep.” He urged States that tackling this kind of hatred, and the violence it can fuel, will not be achieved through clamping down on activists, journalists and political opponents. Rather, he warned that these restrictions on freedom of expression are counter-productive, and lead to more violence.

Against these concerns, consolidating consensus on HRC Resolution 16/18 is more important than ever before. This landmark 2011 resolution commits States to address religious intolerance through promoting the closely interrelated rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. In doing so, it references the OHCHR’s Rabat Plan of Action, which extends this approach to broader grounds of discrimination beyond religion or belief – which would include migrant or refugee status.

ARTICLE 19 has released a detailed briefing (also in French and Arabic) on why maintaining consensus on resolution 16/18 matters, with recommendations for its effective implementation. We hope this unpacks some of the key issues for those less familiar with this initiative, while also tackling some of the points of controversy and misunderstandings that can threaten to derail consensus and momentum towards implementation.

Importantly, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is expected to table a follow-up resolution on this issue, building upon Resolution 16/18. This is an opportunity for States to recommit to a consensus-based approach to tackling religious intolerance that fully respects the existing international human rights legal framework. However, for this to be given any meaning outside of the “Geneva Bubble”, energy must be focused on effective implementation at the domestic level, complemented by reinvigorating the Istanbul Process.

In this regard, States should not overlook the final report of outgoing UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt to the HRC (Interactive Dialogue scheduled for 9 March).

In a blog post for our friends at the Universal Rights Group, we outlined how Heiner’s last report advances normative clarity on the legal and practical relationship between the freedoms of religion or belief and expression, making a strong case for drawing upon the OHCHR’s Rabat Plan of Action and protecting civil society space in implementing resolution 16/18.

States should pay close attention to Bielefeldt’s recommendations, in particular the primacy of non-coercive measures to tackle the root causes of intolerance. He also stresses the importance of engaging multiple stakeholders in implementation (in particular civil society), and the necessity of repealing blasphemy laws and ending the abuse of other laws that restrict the freedoms of expression and religion or belief.

Heiner Bielefeldt will join ARTICLE 19 and other civil society organisations to discuss this issue at a side event from 12:00 – 13:30pm on Monday 7 March (Room XVIII). Ahead of the discussion of his report, and negotiations on the follow-up to resolution 16/18, it will be an important opportunity to reflect on the achievement that resolution 16/18 represents and the huge potential that its comprehensive implementation can offer.

Protecting human rights in protest

Human rights violations in protests remain a global concern: a concerted effort is required by the HRC to clearly establish States’ obligations in this field, and to ensure full accountability in cases where those standards are departed from.

It is therefore important that UN Special Rapporteurs Maina Kiai (freedom of peaceful assembly and of association) and Christof Heyns (extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions) have engaged in extensive consultations to arrive at their compilation of practical recommendations for the proper management of assemblies. These will be presented to the HRC on 9 March, followed by an interactive dialogue.

The recommendations are impressive (to be released publicly, here), setting out many of States’ minimum obligations to protect human rights ahead of, during, and after protests. States should reflect on the steps they should take to ensure the full implementation of the recommendations, in particular where their domestic legal frameworks and practices are shown to fall short.

Importantly, Switzerland, Turkey and Costa Rica will table a resolution on “human rights in the context of peaceful protests” at the 31st Session. It will follow a resolution 25/38 (mandating the compilation to be presented by the Special Rapporteurs), which was adopted by vote after protracted, and heated, negotiations.

ARTICLE 19 calls on all States to seek a consensus resolution on protest that substantively reflects the international legal framework and recommendations derived from it, as set out in the special procedures’ compilation. Importantly, the resolution must seek to ensure that implementation of these recommendations is mainstreamed across HRC mechanisms, including the Universal Periodic Review. Further dedicated attention by the HRC to this issue, against the benchmarks set by the special procedures, is essential to ensure progress in protecting human rights in protests and in attaining accountability for violations.

Preventing “violent extremism”

Preventing “violent extremism” and protecting human rights was a key theme of the High Commissioner’s opening address.

In February, more than fifty civil society organisations joined ARTICLE 19 in raising concerns with the High Commissioner that not all initiatives to prevent “violent extremism” respect human rights, but that many instead add to growing and severe restrictions on civil society space.

The High Commissioner’s response to that letter, together with his intervention at the HRC today, reinforced the message that “measures which ensure respect for human rights will extinguish violent extremism more effectively, and more sustainably, than any crackdown.”

At the 31st Session, States will have the opportunity to discuss the human rights dimensions of preventing “violent extremism” at a panel discussion on Thursday 17 March, and in response to the UN Special Rapporteur on terrorism, whose report focuses on this issue (to be posted shortly, here; interactive dialogue on Thursday 10 March).

ARTICLE 19 will be bringing attention at the Session to measures taken by States in the name of national security to stifle freedom of expression and crush dissent, frequently with a discriminatory impact. This will include a side event on “preventing violent extremism” at 12 noon to 1pm on Thursday 10th March, in Room XVIII, which will feature the experiences and perspectives of a number of stakeholders.

Human rights defenders

At the 31st Session of the HRC, Norway will table a resolution on the situation of human rights defenders, building upon previous resolutions to focus on the importance of protecting defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights. It will follow the presentation of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders report to the HRC (to be posted here shortly), and the interactive dialogue to take place on 3 March.

The resolution is crucial, as human rights defenders working in this space suffer serious violations of the economic, social and cultural rights which they seek to secure. They also face increasing violations of their freedom of expression, association and assembly rights in seeking to effect meaningful and sustainable change, and are often made more vulnerable to violations by their socio-economic status.

The resolution will take on particular significance given the recent adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. ARTICLE 19 has been working extensively over recent years to protect fundamental human rights and ensure transparency and accountability, including the free flow of information, are central to the goals and the measurement of their implementation.

Following the adoption of a strong (albeit voted) resolution on Human Rights Defenders at the General Assembly last year, there is strong ground for the HRC to emphasise how important the free flow of information is for defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights in particular. ARTICLE 19 will be working with partners and lobbying States to ensure the resolution reflects the most progressive international standards in this regard.

The Right to Privacy

ARTICLE 19 is anticipating the first report of the newly established UN Special Rapporteur on Privacy, Joseph Cannataci, to be presented to the HRC on 9 March.

We were among many organisations calling on the HRC to elaborate stronger standards on the right to privacy, in particular following the Snowden revelations and the impact of mass surveillance on the right to freedom of expression. This culminated in the establishment of the mandate in March 2015.

ARTICLE 19 looks forward to engaging on the report, and calls on all States to carefully consider its recommendations, as well as to respond substantively to communications from the mandate holder and to treat favourably any request for country visits.

Freedom of expression in ‘country situations of concern’

During the latter half of the Session, the HRC shifts its focus from thematic issues to countries in which the human rights situation merits particular international attention. The ability of the HRC to respond effectively to these situations is the ultimate test of the institutions effectiveness, and directly addresses the “implementation gap” between the thematic standards the HRC adopts and the human rights reality on the ground.

In relation to all country situations, the OHCHR’s recently released report on the communications of special procedures to States is particularly relevant. The effectiveness of this important HRC mechanism depends upon meaningful, substantive and prompt engagement between States and special procedures on individual communications. In relation to all country situations under consideration, we urge all stakeholders to consider the extent of cooperation with special procedures, including the mandate on freedom of opinion and expression.

In particular, ARTICLE 19 will be responding to the annual reports of the special rapporteurs on Iran and Myanmar, and supporting calls for the renewal of both of those mandates in the respective resolutions. We will also be pushing for sustained attention to the deteriorating situation for freedom of expression in Egypt, and responding to the Universal Periodic Review outcomes for Rwanda, Nepal and Myanmar.