On 24 February 2020, the UN Human Rights Council began its 43rd Session in Geneva (HRC43). Over 4 weeks, major human rights issues will be debated and acted on, with significant implications for the protection of freedom of expression and right to information globally.
The UN Human Rights Council, with its 47 Member States, is an essential forum for the protection of freedom of expression, in particular for the rights of journalists, human rights defenders, and minorities and groups facing discrimination.
At HRC43, States will have the opportunity to progress international standards in many key areas, including through responding to reports on human rights and counter-terrorism, and on freedom of religion of belief. Important action is also expected to tackle the alarming situation for human rights in Myanmar and Iran, highlighted in reports to be debated at the Council.
UN Secretary General “call to action” on rights
The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, opened HRC43 setting out a new “call to action” on human rights with seven priority areas for the UN to address.
The Secretary General’s speech highlights many human rights challenges that the Human Rights Council must address, from the detention of journalists and activists on trumped up terror charges, increasing hostility towards protests globally, and rising populist hatred and discrimination against minority groups.
The priorities in the call to action include commitments to reverse the global shrinking of civic space, and also to protect human rights in the digital age. The speech included reference to several existing UN initiatives, such as the Secretary General’s Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, connecting this to other plans, including a global strategy for promoting and protecting civic space.
The call to action is significant, but the test will be in the “action” that follows. The Secretary General must lead by example, and show principled leadership in speaking out against States who routinely violate human rights, including where those States are powerful. It will also require adequately resourcing the human rights pillar of the UN’s work, to ensure field presences are active on promoting and protecting human rights, and to ensure that accountability mechanisms, such as special procedures and treaty bodies, have the funds to execute their mandates effectively.
At HRC43, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism will present a report on the impact of anti-extremism laws on civil society.
The report identifies a global trend of laws with broad and ambiguous definitions of “terrorism”, “extremism” and “incitement”, allowing authorities to broadly target groups and individuals engaged in dissent or political opposition. Specific provisions target online expression, also mandating intrusive surveillance of civil society actors. Criminal penalties, including imprisonment and fines, and other draconian censorship measures are used to silence voices governments do not want to hear, in particular women human rights defenders, religious minorities, and LGBTI people.
In a parallel report following the mandate’s country visit to Kazakhstan, the abuse of counter-terrorism and “extremism” laws is addressed as a major concern that requires a fundamental overhaul of national law and policy.
ARTICLE 19 will be urging all countries to engage closely with the findings and recommendations of these reports, and ensure that laws on counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism are not abused to further shrink civic space globally. This discussion precedes the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy review, to take place in New York in June and July of 2020. The Special Rapporteur’s reports underscore the importance of bolstering the “fourth pillar” of that Strategy on human rights, and ensure that the UN counter-terrorism architecture does a better job of ensuring accountability for human rights violations and abuse in this context.
Myanmar will be high on the agenda at HRC43, with the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar presenting her annual report, and the EU leading a substantive resolution to renew that mandate and address the human rights crisis in the country. These developments come at a vital time, following critical developments at the International Court of Justice, and ahead of elections anticipated for November 2020.
In a comprehensive briefing for HRC43, ARTICLE 19 has detailed the Myanmar government’s continued failures to progress on freedom of expression, with continued crack downs on online and offline speech. The government has arbitrarily applied restrictive legislation to stifle criticism of political leaders and military authorities, contributing to a climate of self-censorship in the run up to elections. The situation is particularly severe in Rakhine and Chin States, where one of the longest ever recorded internet shutdowns is ongoing, attracting condemnation from several UN experts. At the same time, Myanmar authorities are reported to be expediting “anti-hatred” legislation which risks aggravating discrimination against religious and ethnic minority groups, who already face systematic exclusion from public participation.
We are calling for States to speak out against these concerning developments during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur, and also calling for a stronger focus on freedom of expression in the resolution. This requires setting out immediate and concrete steps the government must take to create an enabling environment for free and fair elections later this year.
The Special Rapporteur on Iran’s report to HRC43 is a vital opportunity for States to address the severe crackdowns on human rights in the country since November 2019. The Council will also consider a resolution to renew the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.
As outlined in our full briefing, ARTICLE 19 is seriously concerned with deadly violence and arbitrary arrests inflicted on thousands of demonstrators during recent nationwide protests, marking it as one of the bloodiest protests in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. At the same time, Iranian authorities enforced unprecedented internet controls, preventing people from sharing relevant information and allowing security forces to facilitate violent repression of protesters with little ability for accurate documentation or reporting of such crimes. Throughout the last twelve months, we have monitored widespread abuse of the Penal Code to arbitrarily arrest and detain human rights defenders, journalists and anyone exercising their right to freedom of expression.
As the situation in the country has deteriorated significantly since the HRC last addressed Iran, it is essential that States support the renewal of the Special Rapporteur mandate, to ensure continued scrutiny of the human rights situation.
Freedom of opinion and expression
Canada and Netherlands will lead a resolution at HRC43 to renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The resolution, which is expected to be a technical rollover, will extend the mandate for a period of three years.
David Kaye, the current Special Rapporteur mandate holder, will present his final report to the Human Rights Council in June (HRC44), after six years in the post. It is expected that the search for his successor will begin following the adoption of the resolution to renew the mandate, and they will be appointed at the conclusion of HRC44.
Freedom of religion or belief
In 2019, the launch of the UN Secretary General’s Global Plan of Action for Tackling Hate Speech, together with the long-overdue revival of the Istanbul Process on implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18, brought renewed focus to issues relating to freedom of religion or belief and intolerance based on religion or belief.
At HRC43, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief will make an important contribution to this debate in a report focused on gender equality. Discriminatory human rights violations and abuses against women are often justified by reference to religion, and frequently target those who are engaged in dissent or belong to minority religions or beliefs. At the same time, women often experience discriminatory violations of their right to freedom of religion or belief. The report will provide much needed guidance to States on how to address these challenges.
This is an important moment for States to reiterate their commitment to the existing UN frameworks for protecting freedom of religion or belief and for tackling religious intolerance, which are set out in two parallel resolutions. Crucially, States should consider how both of these initiatives could more strongly address gender-based human rights violations and abuses committed in the name of religion, as well as gender-based violations and abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief. This should include a commitment to permanently integrate a gender perspective to the Istanbul Process, and States’ reporting on implementation of HRC Resolution 16/18 on combatting intolerance based on religion or belief.
Universal Periodic Review
The Council will adopt a number of outcome reports as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), including on Iran and Kazakhstan. Together with partners, ARTICLE 19 raised serious concerns regarding the ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression in both countries in our submissions. States who champion human rights must make full use of the UPR process to drive forward action at the national level to ensure the freedom of expression. We call on States to hold the Iran and Kazakhstan to account and push for the acceptance of all recommendations related to freedom of expression, and to monitor their implementation in the coming years.