On 8 July 2022, the UN Human Rights Council concluded its 50th Session in Geneva. Over four weeks, States have held debates and passed resolutions on a wide range of human rights issues, contributing to an elaborate set of international standards for the right to freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 has been promoting the right to freedom of expression throughout the session, including taking part in negotiations on new resolutions on freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful protests, and freedom of assembly and association. We have also made a number of statements, including on media freedom in the digital age, protests during crisis situations, and tackling disinformation, as well as on country-specific concerns in Belarus and Myanmar.
Freedom of opinion and expression
Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Namibia, Netherlands and Sweden led a new resolution on freedom of opinion and expression at the session, which was adopted by consensus. The resolution marks renewed commitment to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression worldwide. This iteration of the resolution has an overarching theme of digital, media and information literacy, emphasising that such literacy is important for the enjoyment of the right to freedom and expression, and introduces welcome guidance for governments and other stakeholders to promote these skills. It also introduces important new language on improving connectivity, given that this is a fundamental prerequisite to digital, media and information literacy.
We call on all States to implement the resolution by including digital, media and information literacy in educational programmes and in life-long learning initiatives, ensuring that curriculums explain key international freedom of expression and media freedom standards and provide skills to identify and combat disinformation, hate speech and censorship.
While digital, media and information literacy is an important issue, we express our regret that the resolution focused too heavily on the theme and failed to address many core challenges that threaten the right to freedom of expression worldwide, such as criminal defamation laws and strategic lawsuits against public participation.
We call on the core group to ensure that future versions of the resolution fully reflect the realities facing the exercise of the right to freedom of expression worldwide. In this sense, we encourage the core group to consider that the next resolution takes an ‘omnibus’ approach and deals with a wider array of issues, rather than having a specific theme.
You can see our full analysis of the resolution here.
Costa Rica and Switzerland also led their biennial resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests,which passed by consensus. This iteration of the resolution introduces language addressing an array of new and emerging issues facing protesters worldwide, such as language used pertaining to journalists and other protest monitors, groups at risk of discrimination and marginalisation, online protests, and violations of the right to privacy.
We particularly welcome calls on government authorities to ensure the safety and protection of journalists and other monitors ‘even if the protest has been declared unlawful or is dispersed’. This language is vital as these are situations where journalists play an elevated role in monitoring and reporting on potential human rights violations, but also where they are most vulnerable to restrictions and attacks.
We also draw attention to new language that expresses ‘grave concern at the use of private surveillance technologies’ and also calls on governments to ‘refrain from the arbitrary or unlawful use of biometric identification technologies, including facial recognition, to identify those peacefully participating in an assembly’. This language is essential in a context where mass surveillance of protesters is having devastating chilling effects on protests and creating a climate of fear that discourages protesters from voicing dissent and opposition.
While the resolution makes progress in protecting protesters from violations of their right to privacy, we are disappointed that landmark language in earlier drafts was lost in late stages of negotiation, including calls for a global moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of such targeted surveillance technologies, as well as firmer red lines on the use of biometric recognition technologies to identify protesters. We commend Costa Rica and Switzerland for their efforts to include this language and encourage further commitment to these calls in negotiations on all relevant future resolutions. At the same time, we urge all other States to refrain from pushing back against such vital human rights protections and instead join in supporting these calls.
We now urge all States to fully implement the calls in the resolution – commitments on paper are not enough to protect protesters.
Peaceful assembly and association
The Czech Republic, Indonesia, Lithuania, Maldives, Mexico and the United States of America successfully led the resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for another three years. We reiterate our strong commitment to the mandate and look forward to continuing our close collaboration and work together.
The resolution goes beyond renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and introduces substantive language addressing barriers and restrictions to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association worldwide. In particular, we welcome calls on governments to ‘ensure that domestic provisions on funding for civil society actors are in compliance with their international human rights obligations’. This language is essential in a global climate where laws restricting access to funding, such as foreign agent laws, too often fail the three-part test of legality, legitimacy, and necessity and proportionality, while mandatory or difficult registration and reporting requirements critically undermine the ability of civil society organisations to access resources.
It is essential that States take this opportunity to renew their commitment to and meaningful engagement with the mandate, including by implementing the mandate’s recommendations in annual reports.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay also succesfully led the resolution to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity for another three years. The resolution passed with 23 votes in favour, seven abstentions, and regrettably 17 votes against adoption. We express our full and strong support for the mandate, which has played an essential role in addressing the systematic discrimination and violence faced by persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
The resolution also introduces substantive language, including ‘expressing strong concern at existing laws, policies and practices criminalising consensual same-sex conduct and relations and expressions of gender identity’, as well as calling on governments to ‘amend or repeal laws and policies that discriminate against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity’. This is the first time the Council has addressed these issues in a resolution, and thus makes major progress in the fight against discrimination and violence faced by LGBTIQ persons across the globe.
We now call on all States to implement the recommendations of the resolution, as well as to recognise and meaningfully engage with the mandate.
The European Union led a resolution to renew the Special Rapporteur on Belarus and to address the human rights crisis in the country. The resolution saw maintained support, with 23 votes in favour, 18 abstentions, and only six votes against adoption. We support continued monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation, which shows no signs of relenting.
We are particularly concerned that the Belarusian authorities have continued their systematic attack on journalists and media workers. Andrei Aliaksandrau and Katsyaryna Andreeva are both facing up to 15 years in prison for ‘state treason’. At the same time, extremism laws are especially notorious in suppressing the right to freedom of expression. From April to June 2022 alone, at least 22 people were detained on ‘extremism’ charges.
We express our strong and full support for the Special Rapporteur and urge the Government of Belarus to end its policy of denying the Special Rapporteur access and recognition and to meaningfully engage with the mandate, including by fully implementing the recommendations of her recent report.
As mandated by a previous resolution on disinformation at the 49th Session of the Human Rights Council, this session saw a high-level panel discussion on countering the negative impact of disinformation.
ARTICLE 19 made a statement during the panel, emphasising that holistic and positive measures are the best solution to combatting disinformation, including upholding media freedom, protecting the safety of journalists, ensuring the right to information, and providing access to a free, open, reliable and secure Internet. We urge States to take this approach and refrain from adopting repressive laws criminalising the spread of so-called ‘false information’, or with shutdowns and other disruptions stopping the free flow of information online.
Safety of journalists
ARTICLE 19 and Members of the Geneva Group of Friends on the Safety of Journalists – in particular Austria, Australia, France, Greece, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Morocco, Netherlands, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Sweden, Tunisia, United Kingdom – organised a side event at the session which explored new and emerging threats to the safety of journalists.
The side event addressed the increasingly complex issues facing journalists worldwide. In particular, it looked at first-hand testimonies of journalists facing criminal defamation charges and other increasingly insidious forms of legal harassment, such as strategic lawsuits against public participation, from governments or wealthy private actors attempting to bankrupt and silence them. It also explored challenges that the digital age has created for journalists, including surveillance and online harassment and abuse, particularly targeting women journalists and media workers.
As we approach the upcoming 51st Session of the Human Rights Council in September, which will see the adoption of a new resolution on the safety of journalists, it is essential that the resolution takes the opportunity to include porgressive recommendations on the issues explored during the event.