UN HRC: Protecting rights online requires States to address violence against women in digital contexts

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) of a resolution that, for the first time, recognises the issue of discrimination and violence against women in digital contexts, including its negative impact on women’s exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and privacy (A/HRC/38/L.6).

“This resolution is an important milestone, with the UN’s pinnacle human rights body acknowledging that discrimination and violence against women in digital contexts can constitute an attack not only on their right to equality and non-discrimination, but also on their right to freedom of expression,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director at ARTICLE 19

This call for action requires States and business enterprises to address the root causes of discrimination against women online, including gender-based violence and abuse, to ensure all women are able to harness the positive potential digital technologies have to offer,” he added.

The resolution on “accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls: preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in digital contexts”, was led by Canada, and supported by more than 72 cosponsoring States at its adoption on 5 July 2018.

It recognises violations and abuses of women’s human rights in digital contexts, including stalking, threats of sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary or unlawful surveillance and tracking, and censorship, as a growing global concern requiring ‘proactive and multi-pronged’ responses rooted in international human rights law. This resolution sends a clear message that these forms of digital attack, often overlapping with offline forms of attack, can intimidate women into self-censorship, and prevent their full and effective participation in public debates. Addressing discrimination and violence against women in digital contexts is therefore a freedom of expression priority.

Importantly, the resolution explicitly recognises business enterprises as a key partner in tackling violence against women in digital contexts, and emphasises their responsibility to respect human rights through reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a call which finds support in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression to the HRC. This also reflects calls made in ARTICLE 19’s policy launched at the HRC last month on “Side Stepping Rights: Regulating Speech by Contract.”

Crucially, the resolution reaffirms the importance of tools for anonymity and encryption to enable women and girls to exercise their human rights, in particular to freedom of expression and information, and to privacy.

Efforts to combat violence against women in digital contexts often focus on anonymity and encryption as barriers to justice, and a contributing factor to the volume and intensity of certain forms of online abuse. Yet as this resolution rightly identifies, attempts to limit the use these tools are counterproductive towards enabling women’s exercise of their rights. Such tools can greatly promote women’s ability to securely speak out and actively participate in public life, in particular where they are at high-risk of violence, whether perpetrated by a former intimate partner, or a state actor.

Anonymity and encryption are further recognised as empowering women and girls to ‘access information and ideas, to seek help, assistance and guidance, and to freely explore and express ideas related to their ideas and human rights’. This includes accessing information related to their reproductive health rights, their sexuality and gender identity, which in certain contexts may be taboo, or criminalised.

Attempts led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation to delete language in the resolution on measures to ensure “comprehensive sexuality education” too all people was resoundingly rejected in a vote.

Language in the resolution reflecting the importance of human-rights compliant responses to discrimination and abuse against women in digital contexts drew upon the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, delivered to the 38th Session of the HRC in June 2018.

The report highlights the risk of “adverse collateral effects on other human rights” when legislation intended to protect women against online violence is not “carefully designed in accordance with international human rights law”. In particular, and as was highlighted in a March 2018 joint statement with the UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression, such legislation “could end up undermining the rights of the very women for whom governments and corporate actors may seek to provide redress”. In this regard, ARTICLE 19 reiterates that any measures to limit freedom of expression online, including to prohibit forms of discriminatory violence or abuse, must comply with the requirements set out in Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and be provided for by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate.

As the Special Rapporteur’s report recognises, preventative and positive measures, including education, efforts to promote digital literacy, and tools that enable users to better control and tailor their online experiences, as well as enhanced transparency reporting by the private sector, are also key and must be prioritised.

The adopted resolution calls on all States to:

  • Publicly condemn all forms of violence against women, including in digital contexts, and take positive measures to promote a culture of respect and non-discrimination online and offline, including through education and media campaigns;
  • Take steps to bridge the gender digital divide, with particular attention to women and girls who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, including women with disabilities, and women living in remote and rural areas. This includes facilitating access to digital technologies and STEM education, promoting digital literacy, and building an enabling environment that encourages their use of digital technologies and engagement in the digital world;
  • Ensuring the full participation of women and girls in the development of both digital technologies, and in the development and implementation of relevant national policies, programmes, legislation and other initiatives;
  • Encourage the effective implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by business enterprises, in particular to “create transparent and effective processes for reporting violence” and develop policies that “promote gender equality in the design, implementation and use of digital technologies”;
  • Ensure those who commit acts of violence against women in digital contexts are brought to justice, including by ensuring women have access to effective remedies, which protect their right to privacy and do not subject them to secondary victimisation, and by removing gender bias from all levels of the justice system, through training programmes and the development of gender-sensitive protocols;
  • Systematically collect disaggregated data on reports of violence against women in digital contexts.

ARTICLE 19 calls on all States who have not yet done so to cosponsor this resolution, and take action to protect the rights of all women to freedom of expression online.