On 13 October 2023, the UN Human Rights Council concluded its 54th Session (HRC54) in Geneva. 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 for the right to freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 followed negotiations on a strong resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, as well as country-specific resolutions that raised concerns and renewed mandates on Cambodia and Russia. We also made a number of statements, including on freedom of expression and propaganda for war, as well as on increasing human rights crises in Myanmar, Russia, and Vietnam.
HRC54 ended in the context of renewed armed hostilities between Israel and some Palestinian armed groups, with many reports pointing to the commission of grave violations under international law. This conflict will have significant ramifications for the region and will further increase geopolitical tensions. As a result, many UN Special Procedures came together to recommend the immediate end to violations of international law, a ceasefire, and the establishment of an international protective presence.
We provide details of two resolutions we followed particularly closely below.
Privacy in the digital age
Brazil, alongside Austria, Germany, and Mexico led the consensual adoption of a new resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, with a thematic focus on data protection. We express our support for this new resolution, which builds upon a series of resolutions on the same topic over the past decade.
We welcome that the resolution acknowledges that some applications of new and emerging technologies may not be compatible with international human rights law, following other recent UN resolutions that have begun to acknowledge these ‘red lines’. There is now a wealth of evidence and research showing that there are new and emerging technologies that are fundamentally incompatible with human rights. As an example, emotion recognition technologies are inherently flawed and can never meet the narrowly defined tests of legality, necessity and proportionality. We call for future resolutions to take a step further and call for bans of such new and emerging technologies.
We also welcome that the resolution introduces stronger language on remote biometric surveillance systems, such as facial recognition, including stressing that they raise serious concerns with regard to their proportionality. We have shown how the increasing use of biometric technologies have severe chilling effects on the right to freedom of expression and impact peoples’ behaviour, for example by deterring them from participating in public assemblies, or expressing their ideas or religious beliefs in public. We call on governments to take heed of this new language and prohibit all remote biometric identification in publicly accessible spaces, as well as any use of biometric technologies for mass surveillance.
While this was a strong resolution, we note that the core group missed the opportunity to address certain new and emerging challenges for the right to privacy. The issue of social media monitoring is unaddressed despite being repeatedly raised by many delegations throughout negotiations. We urge the core group to ensure future versions of the resolution include strong recommendations to ensure the collection, analysis and sharing of social media intelligence is in strict conformity with human rights standards and data protection frameworks.
Japan also led a resolution titled advisory services and technical assistance for Cambodia. This resolution, passed every two years, includes a number of recommendations for the government and vitally renews the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia.
While we welcome the renewal of the mandate, whose role is more important than ever, the resolution does not adequately reflect and respond to the continued degradation of the right to freedom of expression and related rights in the country. The government has issued an onslaught of laws in recent years that violate international human rights standards, including recent amendments to the country’s elections laws, while its assault on the country’s once flourishing independent media ‘leaves virtually no free media outlets operating in the country’. We urge Japan to ensure that future versions of the resolution contain stronger language and recommendations.