HRC39: What’s at stake for freedom of expression?

HRC39: What’s at stake for freedom of expression? - Civic Space

Today, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 39th Session (HRC 39) in Geneva – over the next three weeks the UN’s top human rights body will come together to discuss and act on some of the world’s most pressing human rights violations and abuses.

There is a lot on the HRC’s agenda for September, with a number of issues important to the right to freedom of expression to be considered, and it is essential that the Council acts on improving protections. In addition to important reports from OHCHR and from special procedures up for discussion, several thematic and country-specific resolutions will also be negotiated, to be considered for adoption on 20 and 21 September.

New faces

At HRC 39, Michelle Bachelet, the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will deliver her first global update. Having begun a four-year mandate on 1 September 2018, the tone of Bachelet’s inaugural address will provide an initial indication of her priorities for OHCHR, and the manner in which she will go about executing her responsibilities.

ARTICLE 19 has joined other civil society organisations in urging Bachelet to be a forceful voice in calling out human rights violators and abusers, and in pursuing accountability and redress for victims. Ensuring her office redoubles its efforts to protect and promote freedom of expression will be essential. As her predecessor’s parting note emphasizes, the denial of this right is too often followed by the violation of other rights, and is a precursor to conflict. Any strategy to defend the universality of human rights for all people must be underpinned by support for dissent – in particular from grassroots movements advocating for the most marginalised and discriminated against.

The international human rights system within which Bachelet must operate is facing increasing challenges, compounded by the decision of the United States in June to quit the HRC. This also means new faces among the 47 HRC member states, with Iceland taking the seat left vacant by the United States’ departure.

Safety of journalists

According to UNESCO, 68 journalists and media workers have been killed in 2018 to date. Between 2012 and 2016, UNESCO’s Director General condemned on average two assassinations per week. Attacks against journalists, and impunity for them, remains one of the greatest challenges to freedom of expression worldwide.

Since 2012, numerous HRC resolutions have set out States’ political commitments to end impunity and ensure the safety of journalists. The latest report from OHCHR on the issue, to be presented at HRC 39 on 14 September, provides an overview of recent developments at the international and regional levels to monitor the safety of journalists, as well as prevent and protect against attacks.

The report details how, notwithstanding the proliferation of international and regional commitments and mechanisms addressing the safety of journalists, attacks against those in the media continue to rise. Improved coordination between the international, regional and national levels, and allocation of sufficient resources, is needed to address this implementation gap, the report concludes. The report also points to the need for States to ensure an enabling environment for journalism if the culture of impunity is to be dismantled.

To follow-up on this report, and elaborate further commitments on the safety of journalists, a new resolution will be tabled at HRC 39 by Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Qatar, Tunisia, and will include a renewed focus on preventing attacks against journalists. It will follow HRC resolution 33/2 of 2016, and General Assembly 72/175 of 2017, with the potential for States to renew and elaborate on their commitments to ensure the safety of journalists.

As well as pushing for universal co-sponsorship of the resolution from States, we want to see stronger commitments than in previous resolutions. The resolution should:

  • Condemn politicians and others in positions of power who undermine public trust in the media, including by denigrating journalists and news outlets;
  • Ensure an enabling environment for journalism, including by instituting progressive laws and policies on access to publicly-held information, as well as strengthened protections for whistleblowers;
  • Decriminalise defamation, libel and insult, in particular provisions that provide heightened protections to heads of State or other public officials, and ensure that civil defamation laws are not abused to censor journalism that is in the public interest;
  • Bolster protections for secure communications, including encryption, and condemn surveillance practices targeting journalists or their sources, including through State-sponsored hacking;
  • Oppose measures, in particular extrajudicial measures, to block media organisations’ websites.

We want to make sure the safety of journalists remains on the HRC agenda into 2019 and beyond. Follow-up action is needed to ensure that as standards are developed, the implementation gap between what is decided at the UN and what is acted on at national level is not allowed to widen. This requires States making full use of HRC mechanisms to hold States to account, and where possible provide them with technical assistance, to implement the commitments set out in HRC resolutions.

The safety of journalists remains a priority all around the world, and we’ll be calling out States that are failing to meet the commitments set out in UN resolutions on the safety of journalists in oral statements during the session, raising cases of journalists and others arbitrarily detained, disappeared or subject to threats and harassment for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Public participation

OHCHR will present its draft guidelines on “effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs” to the HRC on 14 September, following a series of regional consultations.

The report highlights how ensuring the right to participate in public affairs contributes to more legitimate and accountable decision-making, allowing authorities to understand issues more deeply and more effectively solve problems. The guidelines address gaps in normative understandings, applying the right both at the national and supranational levels, with principles applicable to domestic governments and institutions like the UN alike. These include concrete commitments for public access to information, as well as transparency in all aspects of decision-making.

We will be working with our partners in the Civic Space Initiative to ensure a new HRC resolution on public participation resoundingly endorses the draft principles, and ensure follow-up action at the national and international levels on their effective implementation.


Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are facing seven years’ behind bars, following their arrest in December 2017 and conviction last week under the Official Secrets Act. Their supposed crime was to report on the execution of ten Rohingya men and boys by Myanmar Army soldiers in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State last year.

The report of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (Fact-Finding Mission) will be presented to HRC 39 on 18 September. The report describes widespread and systematic human rights violations—including killings, sexual violence, torture, destruction of civilian homes and property and forced labour—that are “shocking for their horrifying nature and ubiquity”. The Fact-Finding Mission found “reasonable grounds” to conclude that abuses described in the report amount to international crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Actions taken by the authorities to silence critical voices, as well as to amplify hateful rhetoric dehumanising the Rohingya, were among factors the Fact Finding Mission found to have perpetuated the current crisis. This echoes concerns ARTICLE 19 has previously raised at the HRC, and underscores the need for comprehensive action to protect freedom of expression as well as combat ‘hate speech’ in the country.

As well as reiterating those recommendations in light of the Fact Finding Mission’s report, ARTICLE 19 will support its call for HRC action to establish an “independent, impartial mechanism” to collect and preserve evidence that could contribute to future criminal proceedings, in lieu of UN Security Council action to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Indigenous rights in Mexico 

A highly critical report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, following the mandate’s November 2017 official visit to Mexico, will be presented to HRC 39 on 19 September.

A lack of access to information or culturally appropriate consultation on development mega projects in Mexico, and the criminalisation of indigenous and environmental rights defenders protesting those projects, are among major human rights challenges that must be addressed.

ARTICLE 19 will be supporting the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations for change, to bring an end to the systemic discrimination indigenous peoples face in exercising their freedom of expression and access to information rights in the country. During the session, Mexico will also lead, with Guatemala, the renewal of the mandate for three more years.


A report from the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia is also due to be presented at HRC 39, but has not yet been made public. The Council will consider the report in the wake of a sham election in July, marred by irregularities and serious violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

In the run up to the election, the government dissolved the major opposition political party, imprisoned its leader, shuttered major print and broadcast media outlets, and threatened civil society. These actions, which the Special Rapporteur’s report is likely to condemn, were documented in our recent joint submission to the Universal Periodic Review on Cambodia.

Strong action is needed from the HRC to respond to these violations, and to ensure sustained scrutiny of the Cambodian government to reverse its crackdown on freedom of expression and other rights.


The Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in Burundi is set to report to the HRC on 17 September. Burundi, which is an HRC member state, has refused to cooperate with the mechanism since it was established.

The report finds that crimes against humanity have persisted into 2018, against a backdrop of tightening restrictions on and frequent violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Commission’s report details how this environment has made the work of civil society and journalists seeking to address enforced disappearances and other crimes against humanity increasingly dangerous.

For media, license revocations and bans have continued, including for international radio broadcasters around the March 2018 Constitutional referendum; an increasingly number of journalists finding the only way to work safely is in exile. Freedom of association for civil society organisations and the political opposition is also tightly controlled, while arbitrary arrests and prosecutions continue.

Throughout 2018 the Burundian government has refused to face reality at the HRC. Even in the context of its Universal Periodic Review, it refused to accept any recommendations pertaining to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 will be calling for an EU-led resolution to renew the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry at HRC 39, in particular considering that the situation in the country is not likely to improve ahead of 2020 elections, and the importance of ensuring continued monitoring. This will be key to supporting parallel initiatives for accountability, including the International Criminal Court investigations opened in October 2017.

UPR outcomes

During HRC 39, ARTICLE 19 will be commenting on the Universal Periodic Review outcomes for Azerbaijan, Bangladesh and Russia, reflecting upon the freedom of expression commitments they have made, and the priorities for implementation in each country.

Follow @article19un for live updates and watch online, use #HRC39 to join the discussion, and check out our UN work as the Session progresses.