UN: Free expression at the 78th General Assembly Third Committee

UN: Free expression at the 78th General Assembly Third Committee - Protection

The United Nations, New York, NY, USA

The Third Committee of the General Assembly has now concluded its 78th Session at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Over the past two months, debates and negotiations have led to the adoption of multiple new resolutions, each representing a strong political commitment by States to take action in line with their binding international human rights law obligations.

The 78th Session took place against the backdrop of the increasing humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the occupied Gaza Strip, following relentless and disproportionate attacks by Israel, a retaliation for the killing and kidnapping of civilians carried out by Hamas. The General Assembly itself passed a resolution calling for ‘an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities’. We have joined other UN bodies and experts in calling for an immediate and maintained ceasefire, as well as for an end to the freedom of expression crisis that has accompanied this conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, and beyond.

This blog highlights developments in two key resolutions that we closely followed at the session – one on the safety of journalists, and one on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of digital technologies. However, we also contributed to and joined another statement that highlights broader developments at the session, including on terrorism and human rights, and on country-specific situations, from China to Iran.


Safety of journalists

The Third Committee adopted a new strong resolution on the safety of journalists, under the leadership of Greece alongside a core group consisting of Argentina, Austria, Costa Rica, France, and Tunisia. Since 2012, the Human Rights Council and General Assembly have taken turns adopting resolutions on this topic annually, over time developing a now progressive set of international standards to protect the safety and work of journalists and media workers.

This iteration of the resolution consolidates the strong progress made in the most recent Human Rights Council resolution on the safety of journalists.  Crucially, it calls on States to ‘take measures to protect journalists and media workers from strategic lawsuits against public participation, where appropriate, including by adopting laws and policies that prevent and/or alleviate such cases and provide support to victims’. This additional condemnation of such lawsuits is essential given that they are decreasing press freedom, depriving societies of information, preventing accountability from leaders, and threatening democracy. It also consolidated progress on other issues, from investigations into attacks against journalists to protests. Now States have unanimously agreed upon and doubled down on these commitments in both Geneva and New York, they must now be implemented promptly to their full extent.

The resolution takes a step further in urging States to ensure media and information literacy action plans acknowledge ‘the crucial role journalists and media workers play in ensuring access to information and thereby contributing to the promotion of human rights’. The UN has been increasingly focusing on the issue of media and information literacy, including in other resolutions and debates that we have participated in, but has rarely drawn clear links between these programmes and the safety of journalists. This recommendation is essential given a worldwide trend of low trust in the media, coupled with growing attacks against and harassment of journalists, which can be connected with low levels of media and information literacy, among other factors. We now call on States to develop and implement these programmes, in meaningful consultation with civil society.

The resolution also becomes the first to clearly link the emerging threats of generative artificial intelligence to the safety of journalists, noting with concern that artificial intelligence can ‘pose risks to media and the safety of journalists and media workers, including through enabling online threats and harassment’. While the UN has paid extensive attention to the issue of artificial intelligence, it has not focused on the risks generative artificial intelligence is having both on the financial sustainability of the media and on the safety of journalists, particularly through enabling a rise in online threats and harassment, such as doxing or smear campaigns. We now encourage States and UN actors to focus on this issue in more depth in upcoming discussions.


Digital technologies

The Third Committee also adopted an important new resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of digital technologies, led by the Czech Republic and Mexico and a broader core group including the Maldives, the Netherlands, and South Africa. This resolution is the first resolution at the General Assembly to focus purely on the issue of digital technologies, setting out clear guidance and principles to set the stage for future discussions. Importantly, it comes ahead of upcoming negotiations on the Global Digital Compact, so will influence broader UN standing-setting on the intersection between digital technologies and human rights.

While the resolution is the first of its kind in this setting, it consolidates strong standards from other UN resolutions, including resolutions on privacy in the digital age and human rights on the internet. It mirrors other unequivocal condemnations of internet shutdowns and calls on governments to refrain from such measures. It also urges governments and businesses to conduct human rights due diligence, including comprehensive human rights impact assessments, throughout the life cycle of digital technologies. Alongside this, it also contains other strong standards on issues from surveillance to encryption, while addressing the gender-based impacts of digital technologies. States have made these commitments on multiple occasions in multiple settings and must now take action to implement them.

This resolution makes major progress in establishing the strongest ‘red lines’ so far in any UN resolution, recognising that ‘certain applications of new and emerging digital technologies are not compatible with international human rights law’. We have long advocated for the UN to recognise the fact that certain digital technologies are fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality and to call for bans on such technologies. The use of emotion recognition technologies, for example, carry an enormous and unacceptable potential for harm. We urge UN actors to take heed of this recognition in upcoming negotiations on the Global Digital Compact and other standard-setting initiatives and to press forward to calling for bans on certain technologies.