HRC44: Freedom of expression high on the agenda

HRC44: Freedom of expression high on the agenda - Civic Space

Room XX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

Today, on 30 June 2020, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 44th Session in Geneva (HRC44). Over 3 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 journalists, human rights defenders, and minorities and groups facing discrimination.

At HRC44, States will have the opportunity to progress international standards in many key areas, through negotiations on substantive resolutions and by responding to reports, including on freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and violence against women journalists. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to promote and protect the freedom of expression – open public discourse and the free flow of information have proven indispensable.

Freedom of expression

At HRC44, Canada and the Netherlands will present a new resolution on freedom of expression, with a thematic focus on access to information. After a long hiatus on this resolution,  it is essential that it sets progressive international standards for free speech and addresses increasingly important challenges for the digital age.

ARTICLE 19 has continuously reminded States of their obligations to proactively publish information and ensure individual requests for information from public bodies are met through easy, prompt, effective and practical procedures. We have also raised alarm at States across the globe abusing ambiguous and overboard laws designed to silence legitimate speech and deny the public of their right to know – including those on “fake news”, defamation and insult, and extremism. The resolution must incorporate strong and progressive language on these issues.

The resolution must also champion the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression’s previous recommendations to advance standards in the digital age. The Special Rapporteur has long raised the alarm over the abuse of surveillance technologies against human rights defenders, journalists and other dissenting voices for its chilling effects on free speech and access to information. It is essential that the resolution condemns the use of tools for mass and unlawful targeted surveillance and embeds the mandate’s recommendations in calling for an immediate global moratorium on the sale and transfer of such technologies. The Special Rapporteur and other free speech mandates have also affirmed the human rights responsibilities of social media companies, while deploring efforts of governments to pressure such companies to censor content deemed harmful or illegal under respective national laws, many of which may be out of line with international human rights standards. We will be calling for the resolution to address these concerns, especially with access to information increasingly playing out online. On top of these issues, we will be advocating for progressive language on internet shutdowns and website blocking, net neutrality, and encryption and anonymity tools.

Alongside the resolution, HRC44 will see the current Special Rapporteur, David Kaye, deliver his final annual report, after six years of invaluable contributions to the promotion and protection of freedom of expression. The Special Rapporteur’s report details how efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic have often failed to meet the human rights standards of legality, necessity and proportionality. This follows the High Commissioner’s statement expressing alarm that the pandemic had brought about increased censorship and repression of freedom of expression, particularly through the laws governing alleged “fake news” and misinformation. We will be urging all countries to engage closely with the findings and recommendations of the report.

Freedom of peaceful assembly

At HRC44, States will also be taking action on freedom of peaceful assembly. The Council comes at a precarious time for protest, with the widespread use of excessive force against protestors across the globe. In the United States, authorities responded to recent protests against racial inequality and police brutality with disproportionate use of force, rather than engagement with the demands of protestors for greater accountability and justice.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association will be presenting a report at the session, reflecting on key trends over the last decade whilst also looking at the future and exploring persisting challenges. The interactive dialogue presents a prime opportunity for States to respond to ARTICLE 19 and other civil society calls to ensure that the United States and other countries worldwide are held accountable for human rights violations in the context of protest.

At the same time, Costa Rica and Switzerland will be presenting a resolution on peaceful assembly at the session. With this resolution on the table, the OHCHR has also released a timely report on the impact of new technologies in the context of protests. Among its recommendations, the OHCHR have urged States to prohibit the use of surveillance techniques and facial recognition technology on those exercising the right of peaceful assembly, and to cease the use of shutdowns of internet or telecommunications networks during protests. ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly called for an end to the use of surveillance and facial recognition technologies and internet shutdowns to repress protests, and it is crucial that the tabled resolution incorporates these issues to ensure the right to peaceful assembly is protected in the modern era.

Violence against women journalists

The Council will also see the Special Rapporteur on violence against women take the floor to present her important report on violence against women journalists and take part in an interactive dialogue. ARTICLE 19 submitted inputs for this report, showing how the violence to which journalists are exposed to is often gender-based, and experienced differently according to gender and other intersecting aspects of their identity or positionality.

With journalists under increasing threat worldwide for conducting their vital work, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings previously proposed that the Council establish a Special Procedures Task-Force to undertake rapid responses missions in response to the acts of violence or death against journalists.

We urge all States committed to media freedom and the safety of journalists to take the floor during the interactive dialogue and voice their support for the creation of a Task-Force to undertake gender-responsive rapid responses missions. This is also a vital opportunity to call on all governments take concrete and targeted steps to end impunity for violence against women journalists, and to adopt a gender-responsive approach in the design and implementation national protection mechanisms for journalists. 

Country-specific issues

The Special Rapporteur on Belarus will make a timely intervention at the session. In the run up to upcoming elections in August, we have reported that the election campaign has been tainted with constant threats and intimidation, with the arrest and detention of numerous members of nomination initiative groups and ordinary voters who have participated in peaceful pickets to collect signatures. We urge States to take this opportunity to call on Belarus to respect its international commitments on freedom of expression.

Myanmar will also be on the agenda at the upcoming session. ARTICLE 19 has detailed the authorities’ continued failures to make progress on the protection of freedom of expression, arbitrarily applying restrictive legislation against activists and journalists to stifle criticism of political leaders and military authorities. At the same time, proposed ‘anti-hatred’ legislation is out of line with international standards and risks aggravating discrimination against religious and ethnic groups. It is fundamental that States maintain their scrutiny of the authorities’ human rights record.

Finally, Spain’s Universal Periodic Review outcome report will be adopted during the session, with the country given the opportunity to respond to the freedom of expression recommendations it received during its review. Together with partners, ARTICLE 19 raised serious concerns regarding the ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression in the country in our UPR submission, including the use of overbroad laws on defamation, religious insult and counter-terrorism to restrict speech. We will be calling on Spain to accept and implement recommendations related to freedom of expression to improve protections of the right in its legislation.

We urge all States to join ARTICLE 19 at HRC44 in calling for accountability for violations of the freedom of expression and ensuring that international standards progress and reflect to emerging challenges of the day.


During HRC44, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC44 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.