HRC 40: Priorities to protect free expression

HRC 40: Priorities to protect free expression - Civic Space

Room XX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

On 25 February 2019, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) begins its 40th Session in Geneva. For four weeks, major human rights issues will be debated and acted on, with significant implications for the protection of freedom of expression globally. Discussions around preventing the abuse of counter-terrorism laws, protecting the safety of journalists, and combatting religious intolerance, as well as debates on numerous country situations, must be focused on bringing practical national-level changes to protect civil society space and dissent, while routine human rights violators must be brought to account.

The session will open with interventions from the UN Secretary General and senior representatives from governments around the globe, setting out their priority concerns on human rights in the world right now. States will then consider UN expert reports on human rights defenders, privacy, freedom of religion and belief and other issues, and negotiate the content of resolutions to be adopted on 22 March. This will be a challenge: uncontested elections for HRC membership in 2018 saw a new intake of serial violators of freedom of expression gain voting powers in Geneva, including Bahrain, the Philippines, and Eritrea.

Following a year in which the HRC achieved many positive outcomes despite experiencing significant strains, it is imperative that those States that are committed to promoting freedom of expression redouble their efforts to ensure the Council fulfils its mandate, and meets the expectations of civil society observers.

Free expression violators in the spotlight

The credibility of the HRC depends on its ability to deliver on stronger human rights protections at the national and local levels – and in providing truth and justice for victims and survivors of violations and abuses. Where States are failing in their obligations to protect freedom of expression, the HRC must be a forum in which they are called out. Where necessary, mechanism must be established to pursue accountability and secure redress.

As a politicised body, many powerful States who persistently violate freedom of expression have been able to evade HRC scrutiny. This should not be the case, and States supportive of freedom of expression must initiate action. At HRC40, ARTICLE 19 will be making the case for action on Bahrain, China, Egypt, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

We will also be engaging on country situations that, as a result of serious human rights violations, are already on the HRC40 agenda.


It is clear that the government-led crackdown on dissent in Myanmar has not abated since the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar updated the HRC on the situation last September. As shown by the Special Rapporteur’s annual report, an intensifying campaign of censorship in Myanmar is mirroring government attempts to evade accountability for crimes against humanity and deflect from other failures in governance. Since 2017, journalists and other media workers, their sources, as well as protesters and members of civil society have been targeted at an alarming rate under a growing web of legislation which severely restrict freedom of expression.

We will be calling for the release of 20 protesters arrested in January in Loikaw, at the erection of a statue of State Counselor Aung San Su Kyi, and the release of Kachin youth activists Nang Pu, Lum Zawng, and Zau Ja, sentenced under defamation for their participation in an anti-war protest. We continue to call for the release of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, detained under the Official Secrets Act for their reporting on a massacre perpetrated by the army.

Decisive action to renew the Special Rapporteur’s mandate is essential, and any resolution must clearly call for a reversal to the shrinking of civic space through comprehensive legal reform and an end to judicial harassment – in particular to allow minority and dissenting voices to be heard.


While the government continues its policy of non-cooperation with the Special Rapporteur, ongoing international scrutiny of the human rights situation in Iran is essential. The situation for online freedoms is dire and continues to deteriorate, while there is ongoing impunity for killings of protesters, and journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, women human rights defenders and environmental defenders are behind bars for their work. ARTICLE 19 will be calling for the immediate and unconditional release of 8 environmental defenders, several of whom currently face charges of ‘corruption on earth’ for their work to protect the environment, a charge which carries the death penalty.

HRC Member States must support the resolution renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur at HRC40, to maintain pressure on the government to respect their human rights obligations.


Despite its complete lack of engagement with the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, and ongoing and serious human rights violations in the country, a lack of competition from African countries in the HRC elections meant that Eritrea was able to secure a seat as a member unopposed. HRC40 is therefore a crucial moment for States to remind Eritrea that this move will only increase scrutiny on their domestic record on human rights and freedom of expression, and not weaken it. The Eritrean government must demonstrate that its HRC membership will be accompanied with concrete, urgent reforms to address ongoing serious human rights concerns in the country.

In addition to these, Universal Periodic Review (UPR) working group reports will be adopted at this Session for a number of countries including Malaysia, Mexico, Senegal, and Malta, where serious concerns on the safety of journalists and media freedom, restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and association, and on promoting pluralism, inclusion and diversityhave been raised by States and civil society through the mechanism, and must be acknowledged and addressed by their governments.

Ending abuse of counter-terror laws, combating religious intolerance, and ensuring the safety of journalists & HRDs

At HRC 40, it is imperative that States act to challenge three worrying trends of human rights violations, all of which pose a major threat to freedom of expression globally:

  • Failures by States to combat religious intolerance, while also failing to secure the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression;
  • Continued impunity for attacks against journalists;
  • The abuse of counter-terrorism laws to target civil society and dissenting voices;
  • Attacks against women human rights defenders and environmental and land defenders.

Several of the reports under discussion at HRC40, presented by UN experts and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), address these concerns in detail. States will also negotiate and adopt resolutions that respond to these trends, which must include strong commitments for action they will take at the national level to protect rights.

Combating religious intolerance

In his first address to the UN General Assembly in 2019, UN Secretary General António Guterres, warned how “poisonous views are penetrating political debates and polluting the mainstream”, with nationalists and populists exploiting fear to win votes. He announced that system-wide Global Plan of Action for Tackling Hate Speech will be developed in the coming months.

At the opening of HRC40, the Secretary General is likely to reiterate his call for “concrete solutions” to tackle all forms of hate speech, xenophobia and intolerance – solutions that must enlist all of society, including civil society.

This is a priority for freedom of expression advocates worldwide. Authoritarian and so-called ‘strong-man’ politicians have gained power and influence in numerous countries, often trading in the language of freedom of expression only as a smokescreen to scapegoat, silence, and marginalise minority groups.

Two long-standing parallel HRC initiatives set out detailed commitments and actions States can take to reverse this trend in relation to religious intolerance, backed by a series of complementary UN standards. It’s time for States to turn their support for resolutions on tackling religious intolerance, and on promoting freedom of religion or belief, into concrete and comprehensive implementation efforts.

This primarily requires States to lead by example in taking action at the national level, but also to address the under-reporting of implementation efforts to the UN, and revive the series of intergovernmental meetings dedicated to fostering cooperation and exchange on good practice, known as the Istanbul Process. On all three fronts, ARTICLE 19 will be stressing to States the essential role of civil society, and of opening space for minority and dissenting voices to speak out against hate.

A report from the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, also due to be presented at HRC40, will bring into focus the incompatibility of blasphemy laws with international human rights law. This theme has been central to controversies surrounding the interpretation of States’ commitments under the abovementioned HRC resolutions, and is particularly relevant in light of recent developments in different parts of the world: a negative European Court of Human Rights decision contrasts with more positive moves, including the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision to uphold the acquittal of Asia Bibi, and a referendum in Ireland to repeal blasphemy.

The 10th anniversary report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, also contains many important reflections, including on the importance of bringing cultural actors into initiatives to address religious intolerance, and to push back against attacks on the universality of human rights. The mandate’s report on a country visit to Malaysia contains many pertinent recommendations that the Government of Malaysia must act upon.

Ending abuse of counter-terror laws

The increasing abuse of counter-terrorism laws and policies to silence debate, curtail media freedom, and close civil society space, is a global concern. In too many parts of the world, including within established democracies, invoking national security and counter-terrorism provides a convenient excuse for States to simply target voices they do not like, online and offline.

Since 2001, an increasingly expansive set of resolutions emanating mostly from the UN in New York, including binding Security Council resolutions, has incentivised States to adopt far-reaching national security measures, which often securitize the protection of rights while failing to ensure sufficient safeguards against the abuse of measures to infringe rights. This is notwithstanding broad recognition of the importance of respect for human rights to ensuring security, and experience that demonstrates human rights violations are a major contributing factor that drives individuals to commit acts of terrorism.

ARTICLE 19 will be pushing for States to name names in highlighting violations, and call out specific countries when responding to the report of the Special Rapporteur on countering terrorism and human rights, which focuses on the abuse of counter-terrorism laws to target civil society. Security narratives are driving the abuse of extremism legislation in Russia to curtail online speech, the all-out assault of human rights activism in Egypt, the obliteration of independent media in Turkey, and the criminalisation of migrants’ rights activists in Europe. These are among examples that States must call for an end to.

The independent human rights scrutiny the Special Rapporteur brings to the issue within the UN’s counter-terrorism apparatus is unique and must be protected. A resolution to renew the mandate at HRC40, being led by Mexico, is therefore crucial.

Ending impunity for attacks on journalists

Days after the HRC adopted a detailed resolution on the safety of journalists at its last regular session in September 2018, Saudi Arabia, an HRC Member State who supported that resolution, sent a hit squad to its consulate in Istanbul to murder journalist Jamal Khasshogi. The killing of Khashoggi is now subject to a UN expert-led independent investigation, that Saudi Arabia refuses to cooperate with.

Notwithstanding widespread HRC condemnation of the Myanmar government’s persecution of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo during the last year, they remain behind bars following a conviction on fabricated charges – all for reporting on crimes against humanity. Journalists in the country are currently under unprecedented pressures, with numerous editors, journalists, as well as their sources, facing arbitrary arrest and detention.

Following the Philippines re-election to the HRC, they have continued a campaign of harassment against Maria Ressa, CEO of independent news outlet Rappler, culminating in her arrest this month for “cyber libel.”

At the same as the HRC becomes increasingly ambitious in its commitments towards promoting the safety of journalists, the audacity of some of its members in flagrantly violating their most basic treaty obligations in this field is staggering.

Throughout HRC40, States that are vocal in their support of journalists and media freedom must also be bold in naming those States that attack journalists, or do too little to address pervasive impunity for such attacks. We will be urging States to go beyond setting standards to delivering on their commitments, and, when they fall short, to prevent, protect against and remedy all attacks.

Protecting human rights defenders

Threats to human rights defenders – in particular women human rights defenders and environmental and land rights defenders – is also on this session’s agenda, and states have an opportunity to push forward in strengthening standards on protection.

We will be speaking out for States to implement the recommendations contained in the report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, to be presented at the session, which focuses on women human rights defenders. HRC40 will also see efforts to increase States’ commitments on the protection of environmental and land rights’ defenders, with Norway leading a resolution on this theme. The 2018 adoption of the binding Escazu Agreement in the Inter-American region, which provides for specific protection measures for EHRDs, should act as important guidance on the action needed from States.


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