On 7 October 2022, the UN Human Rights Council concluded its 51st Session in Geneva. This session was significant geopolitically, with China and Russia being discussed directly at the Council. Over four weeks, States held debates and passed resolutions on a wide range of human rights issues, contributing to an elaborate set of international standards promoting the right to freedom of expression. While the Council made some progress in responding to certain county-specific situations, it failed to do so in other critical contexts.
ARTICLE 19 promoted the right to freedom of expression throughout the session, including taking part in negotiations on a wide range of thematic resolutions, including on the safety of journalists, terrorism and human rights, new and emerging technologies in the military domain, and neurotechnologies. We also made statements on privacy in the digital age, as well as on country-specific concerns in Cambodia and Myanmar.
Safety of journalists
Austria – together with a core group of Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia – led a strong resolution on the safety of journalists which was adopted by consensus and co-sponsored by 69 countries from all world regions. A decade since the Human Rights Council first adopted a resolution on the safety of journalists, this updated version adds progressive commitments to an already robust set of international standards.
This is notably the first time a UN resolution has contained guidance on strategic lawsuits against public participation, expressing concern about the rise of these lawsuits to exercise pressure, intimidate or exhaust the resources and morale of journalists and calling on governments to adopt laws and policies that prevent and alleviate such cases. It also contained strong language on an array of other issues – from conducting investigations into attacks against journalists, to extraterritorial attacks, to protests. You can read the full analysis of the resolution here.
We now call on all States – particularly those leading and co-sponsoring the resolution – to show leadership and translate these renewed international commitments into allocation of resources and political will at the national level.
Terrorism and human rights
Egypt and Mexico also co-led a resolution on terrorism and human rights. After difficult negotiations, the resolution was adopted by consensus, signalling renewed commitment to ensure human rights and the rule of law are central in counter-terrorism efforts. This resolution sits within a vast UN architecture on counter-terrorism which is increasingly complex and opaque, with a lack of meaningful opportunities for diverse and independent civil society engagement.
We advocated tirelessly for the importance of freedom of opinion and expression in fighting terrorism and therefore welcome the inclusion of paragraphs underlining explicitly the need for respect for freedom of expression on the one hand and the right to privacy on the other. We also welcome language on international human rights obligations in transfers of terrorist suspects, profiling of individuals, detention, the right to a fair trial and other due process guarantees, as well as on children rights and the crucial role of civil society. However, we regret that the resolution is marred with security-based concerns and language on information communications technologies that is both vague and unrelated to the competence of the Council to promote of human rights in the fight against terrorism.
We continue to urge all States to refrain from violating the rights of those exercising their right to freedom of expression and related rights, online and offline, under the guise of countering terrorism or extremism.
New and emerging technologies in the military domain
Austria and Panama co-led a consensually adopted resolution on the human rights implications of new and emerging technologies in the military domain. This relates to a set of resolutions and initiatives at the Human Rights Council on new and emerging technologies in a general sense which have so far been quiet on the use of these technologies for military purposes.
The resolution is short and mandates the Advisory Committee to publish a report on the topic in three years’ time. We welcome this upcoming report and share deep concerns about how new and emerging technologies are not only leading to egregious human rights violations when used for military purposes, but how these technologies are spilling over and committing grave harms in our everyday lives, including when used for law enforcement. We believe that the Human Rights Council has a key role in addressing these issues – international human rights law and international humanitarian law are complementary and mutually reinforcing.
We urge the Advisory Committee to work alongside the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to also undertake an effective and meaningful consultation with diverse civil society, including human rights and humanitarian organisations, as they prepare the report over the next three years.
The European Union – with the exception of Hungary – passed a landmark resolution creating a Special Rapporteur on the Russian Federation. This is the first time that a human rights monitoring mechanism has been created for one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (known as the “P-5”). The historic resolution was passed with 17 votes in favour and 6 votes against adoption, with 24 abstentions. This is not the only UN forum that has taken recent action on Russia – the UN General Assembly also just passed by a strong majority a resolution condemning its ‘illegal so-called referendums in regions within Ukraine’ and demanding it reverses it annexation declaration.
The Russian authorities have launched a whole-sale attack on independent media, including on the safety of journalists and media workers, who continue to conduct their vital work in unprecedented conditions. Across the country, thousands of protesters have been detained for expressing critical or dissenting views. It is in these conditions that we have documented the use of biometric recognition technologies in public spaces, leading to even more severe chilling effects on free speech and protest.
We express our full and strong support for the Special Rapporteur and stand ready to meaningfully engage with the mandate.
The Council shamefully rejected a resolution led by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The resolution received 17 votes in favour and 19 votes against adoption, with 11 abstentions.
The resolution, with only two short paragraphs, merely called for a debate on the High Commissioner’s recent report which detailed systematic human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. No country, regardless of its political might or economic standing, should be allowed to evade scrutiny of such an egregious human rights situation. The rejection of the resolution suggests that certain countries can escape accountability, in violation of the Council’s principles of universality, objectivity, and non-selectivity – the very principles opponents of the resolution claim to champion.
We commend the core group of the resolution and encourage other countries dedicated to the protection of human rights to join them in maintaining and enhancing efforts to ensure accountability for atrocity crimes in Xinjiang. We strongly deplore that the Human Rights Council did not adopt this resolution and condemn those countries that voted no or abstained on this initiative.
Neurotechnology and human rights
Chile, Greece and Singapore brought forward a short resolution on neurotechnology and human rights.
Similarly to the resolution on the human rights implications of new and emerging technologies in the military domain, this is a short text which mandates the Advisory Committee to publish a report on this topic. We welcome attention on this issue given neurotechnologies are being developed to access, monitor and manipulate the neural system of individuals, with a lack of transparency, therefore bringing unprecedented risks on the right to privacy and even the absolute right to hold opinions without interference.
We urge the Advisory Committee to consult widely with civil society in the drafting of this report and underline that neurotechnologies should not be developed, deployed or used before we understand their human rights impacts and societal implications.