UN: Free expression a top priority at the Human Rights Council

UN: Free expression a top priority at the Human Rights Council - Civic Space

After an Israeli airstrike in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 12 October 2023. Photo: Anas-Mohammed/ Shutterstock

Today, on 18 June 2024, the UN Human Rights Council began its 56th Session in Geneva (HRC56). ARTICLE 19 will be present at HRC56 to advocate for progressive international standards relevant for the right to freedom of expression, as well as to hold governments to account where they are failing to live up to their obligations and commitments.

This session will be critical in ensuring the development of progressive standards for free speech, with new resolutions on freedom of opinion and expression, protest, and tackling religious hate.

As Israel’s military assault on Gaza wages on and the catastrophic humanitarian situation grows, demands for accountability and justice will remain a top priority on the agenda of the Council.


Freedom of expression

The Netherlands and Canada – alongside a core group consisting of Brazil, Fiji, Namibia, and Sweden – will present a new resolution on the right to freedom of opinion and expression at the session. The resolution will have an overarching theme of the ‘power of voice’, highlighting how the right to freedom of expression is an essential enabler for other human rights and addressing major global challenges. This is the third iteration of the resolution, which was last adopted in 2022.

Our recent Global Expression Report highlights how 4.2 billion of us – more than half of the global population – are now living through a freedom of expression crisis. This is more people than any time this century so far. It is more essential than ever that this resolution effectively responds to global trends.

We will be working closely with the core group, including by actively taking part in negotiations, to ensure the resolution contains strong recommendations on persisting and emerging issues that hinder freedom of expression as an enabling right, particularly to call on governments to decriminalise defamation and to implement specific protections from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).


Religious hatred

Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, announced its plan to renew Resolution 53/1 at the upcoming session, a controversial resolution adopted last year on the burning of holy books. This coincides with the failure of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to renew Resolution 16/18 at the previous session, the consensual and universally agreed-upon action plan to tackle religious hatred in law, policy, and practice.

We have long been a staunch proponent of 16/18 as key in our fight against religious hate. As in Resolution 16/18, our approach to tackling hate is that open space for dialogue, debate, and dissent, including on topics that maybe controversial, is fundamental to challenge hate in societies. Those who face religious intolerance, especially multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, must be able to speak and be heard. Any prohibition on blasphemy is not only fundamentally incompatible with the right to freedom of expression but also the right to freedom of religion or belief. These prohibitions are counterproductive in our fight against hate as they shut down interfaith dialogue and can facilitate and legitimise violence against minorities and atheists.

At the session, we will meet with many delegations to encourage them to reaffirm their commitment to and implementation of Resolution 16/18 and to resist any new and competing frameworks, especially those premised on blasphemy. In the meantime, we will advocate for the fundamentally problematic language in Resolution 53/1 to be reformulated and brought into line with international human rights standards. We stand ready to continue our work with all States to tackle the rise of hate against persons on the basis of their religion or belief.


Journalists in exile

Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, will be presenting a report on journalists in exile. As authoritarianism rises across the globe, so does the number of journalists forced into exile, so this report comes at a vital time.

Instead of facing safety in exile, an increasing number of journalists are instead faced with extraterritorial attacks – from killings, to physical violence, to surveillance – that are designed to create a climate of fear and keep them silent. These journalists are targeted precisely because they play a vital role – even when miles and miles away, they still find ways of bringing the truth to light and strengthening justice and democracy back home.

We will speak during the interactive dialogue and urge all states to fully implement the recommendations of the report, including issuing emergency humanitarian visas through accelerated procedures to journalists and their families at risk, and to ensure that all acts of transnational repression on their territory are investigated and prosecuted promptly, fully and effectively.



Gaza will remain high on the agenda at the session, as Israel’s catastrophic military offensive wages on. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory will present three detailed reports at the session. These reports conclude that Hamas-led Palestinian fighters who led the 7 October attack committed war crimes, while Israel has committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international human rights and humanitarian law since the attack, including the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of civilians and forced starvation.

We have continuously reiterated that Israel’s continuing assault on the right to freedom of expression means that these potential war crimes and other international crimes continue to go unrecorded, perpetuating impunity and closing off any possible pathways to hold those responsible to account. The killings of journalists, closure of media outlets, and near-total ban on foreign journalists, alongside persisting communications blackouts, denies the collection and preservation of evidence.

We will speak in the interactive dialogue at the session, emphasising how Israel’s grave violations of the right to freedom of expression do not exist in a vacuum and must be addressed as part of efforts to ensure accountability and justice for the broader war crimes and other international crimes identified in the report.

At the same time, we will be co-sponsoring a side event with partners at the session to examine the ongoing crackdowns on pro-Palestinian protests and voices by many governments over recent months.



Costa Rica and Switzerland will be presenting a resolution on peaceful protests at the session. This resolution, updated and adopted every two years, is an opportunity to add strong commitments to an already robust set of international standards.

Our #FreeToProtest Campaign has detailed now multiple governments continue to attack demonstrators, trying to silence their voices, and prevent people from coming together. Weak laws are often misused to quell protests. Alarmingly, authorities and the media have begun to demonise people who march in an attempt to stigmatise the very act of protest. Worst of all, this repression is growing more violent, with police brutality and arrests of protesters on the rise. At the previous session of the Council, the Special Rapporteur on peaceful assembly presented a Model Protocol with robust guidance and recommendations to counter these trends.

We will take part in negotiations and encourage delegations to ensure that key recommendations from the Model Protocol are integrated into upcoming resolution.


Sexual orientation and gender identity

At HRC56, the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will present a report with a specific focus on the barriers LGBTQI+ people face in exercising their rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and association. We previously shared inputs on this topic with the Independent Expert, which have been referenced and reflected in the final report.

The right to freedom of expression encompasses the right to freely express one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as the freedom to seek, receive and impart information on issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity. However, LGBTIQ individuals face significant barriers to their exercise of the right to freedom of expression and related rights, including oppressive laws, physical and verbal violence, censorship, surveillance, stigmatisation, and bans on pride marches and other forms of protest.

We will be promoting the findings and recommendations of the report and our own positions throughout the session. In particular, we will remind delegations to repeal or refrain from adopting any laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, including any laws aimed at prohibiting so-called ‘homosexual propaganda’ or the dissemination of information on sexual orientation and gender identity.


During HRC56, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC56 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.