On 13 June 2022, the UN Human Rights Council began its 50th Session in Geneva (HRC50). Since 2006, over its 50 sessions, the Human Rights Council has played a crucial role in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide, including by establishing progressive international standards for the right to freedom of expression.
This session will be no different. States will have the opportunity to progress international standards in many key areas, through negotiations on substantive resolutions on freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.
Freedom of opinion and expression
At HRC50, a core group consisting of Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Namibia, Netherlands and Sweden will lead a new resolution on freedom of opinion and expression, with a thematic focus on media, digital and information literacy. According to the latest report by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, media freedom and the safety of journalists is in dangerous decline in almost every region of the world, with worrying consequences for human rights, democracy, public participation and development. Against this worrying backdrop of increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, this is an essential opportunity to build on the previous version of the resolution and establish progressive international standards.
We welcome the theme of media, digital and information literacy, which is intrinsically linked to the right to freedom of expression. Where people are equipped with media, digital and information literacy skills, they can critically assess news, information, and all forms of media content, enabling them to participate in the public exchange of news and ideas. We believe these skills are a key response to disinformation, hate speech, unfair content moderation, and poor transparency – some of the biggest information challenges of our time. However, the ability of individuals to safely and securely access the Internet is a fundamental prerequisite for media, digital and information literacy. As such, we will be advocating for the resolution to contain strong language on initiatives and programmes to boost media, digital and information literacy, as well as progressive recommendations on policies to enhance connectivity.
At the same time, it is essential that the resolution does not lose sight of ‘core’ freedom of expression issues that may go beyond the theme. We will be calling for the resolution to include strong recommendations on governments to decriminalise defamation and to ensure protections from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), among other persisting and emerging issues.
Media freedom in the digital age
Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, will also be presenting a report on media freedom and the safety of journalists in the digital age. With media freedom and the safety of journalists in decline worldwide, this report comes at a pivotal time.
The digital age has transformed media freedom. Although broadcast radio and television remain important sources of information and ideas, the Internet, and particularly social media platforms, have taken a position of ever-growing importance as content distribution platforms. The digital age has also made threats to the safety of journalists more complex and insidious. It has brought with it many new issues for journalists, such as the use of surveillance technologies and online harassment and abuse, including gender-based attacks. However, it has also exacerbated more traditional and long-standing forms of attacks, including legal harassment. We will be calling on governments and other stakeholders, including social media platforms, to take urgent action and fully implement the recommendations of the report to reverse threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists, including in a dedicated side event and oral statement.
Costa Rica and Switzerland will also be presenting a resolution on peaceful protests at the session. This comes at a vital time – from Guinea to Hong Kong to Iran, protest is under increasing threat across the globe.
We will be taking part in negotiations on the resolution to ensure it responds to new and emerging issues. We have expressed our deep concerns about biometric technologies, such as facial and emotional recognition, being used for mass surveillance of public and publicly-available spaces, including to identify those participating in assemblies. The UN High Commissioner has shared these concerns, calling on governments to ensure that these technologies are never used in the contexts of protests. It is essential that the resolution addresses these technologies and establishes firm red lines for their use in the context of protests or generally for mass surveillance.
There has also been growing attention on the special role of journalists and other actors monitoring and reporting on protests. Through their reporting, they play a fundamental role facilitating participation and disseminating key messages from assemblies, as well as documenting human rights violations in the contexts of protests. Despite this, they often face attacks from the authorities, including physical violence and arrests. It is therefore important that the resolution builds on protections for these actors, including by making it clear that they must be protected even if protests are dispersed or declared unlawful by the authorities.
Freedom of assembly and crisis
Clement Voule, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, will also be presenting a timely report on protests during crisis. Across the globe, protests are under significant threat during crisis situations, from the COVID-19 pandemic to armed conflicts to coups.
We submitted inputs for this report, drawing on our work monitoring crackdowns on protests during health and socio-political crises. In many contexts, the COVID-19 pandemic led to disproportionate restrictions on protests, many of which are increasingly becoming permanent laws that lack democratic oversight and scrutiny. As for socio-political crises, we have witnessed an excessive repression and use of deadly force against protesters demanding accountability, institutional reforms and urgent changes from power holders, in particular in the context of elections. Across the session, including in an oral statement, we will use our voice to make sure that governments take full heed of the recommendations in the report.
As with previous sessions, Myanmar will remain high on the agenda of the Council, with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar presenting oral updates on the deteriorating situation since the 2021 coup.
Since the previous session, the situation for the right to freedom of expression has remained critical, particularly online. The Myanmar military has ramped up its use of the death penalty against activists. In 2022, there has also been an increase in arrests of individuals on incitement and terrorism charges in response to social media posts. On 5 May, the military announced it had arrested 229 users for violating the country’s Anti-Terrorism Law and Electronic Communications Law that prohibits distribution of ‘anti-military propaganda’ online. The authorities have continued to cut mobile phone services to conceal crimes under international law. We will be condemning and calling for accountability for these violations throughout the session.
During HRC50, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC50 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.