On 9 September 2019, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 42nd Session in Geneva (HRC42). Over 3 weeks, major human rights issues will be debated and acted on, with significant implications for the protection of freedom of expression and right to information globally.
The UN Human Rights Council, with its 47 Member States, is an essential forum for the protection of freedom of expression, in particular for the rights of journalists, human rights defenders, and minorities and groups facing discrimination.
As stakeholders prepare for HRC42, the UN’s Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, has set out a series of thematic priorities for States to act upon, including to reverse shrinking civic space for protesters and dissenters, to push back against heavy censorship of the Internet and attacks on digital rights, and to end killings of human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists.
As attacks on the multilateral system intensify, with autocrats even resorting to thuggish and personal jibes at Bachelet herself, it is crucial that rights-respecting States demonstrate that the Council can still deliver strong outcomes for freedom of expression.
In the next three weeks, States will have the opportunity to act to ensure stronger protection for the right to privacy in the digital age, and for individuals facing reprisals, and to end arbitrary detentions. Action will also be needed to tackle the alarming situation for human rights and freedom of expression in Myanmar and Cambodia, highlighted in UN reports to be debated at the HRC. ARTICLE 19 will also be pushing for States to speak out on Turkey, one of the world’s largest jailors of journalists.
Privacy in the digital age
At HRC42, Germany and Brazil will introduce a resolution on “Privacy in the Digital Age”. Since the Snowden revelations in 2013, this series of UN resolutions has progressively elaborated standards on how to secure the right to privacy online, including to better protect the closely related right to freedom of expression.
The resolution provides States with the opportunity to further bolster UN standards on privacy, building upon the last HRC resolution adopted in March 2017, and a parallel resolution adopted at the UN General Assembly in New York in 2018.
In light of the damning report by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression on the abuse of privately developed surveillance technologies against human rights defenders, journalists and dissenting voices, including mobile device hacking and facial recognition technology, it is clear that further, specific guidance from the UN on the human rights responsibilities of business enterprises is essential., States must also champion the Rapporteur’s recommendations, including through ensuring their reflection in the resolution. At minimum, States must act to call for an immediate global moratorium on the sale and transfer of targeted surveillance technologies, as well as for other crucial human rights safeguards.
While States must continue to address mass and targeted surveillance, it is essential that the HRC addresses emerging challenges to rights in the digital age.
At the UN General Assembly in 2019, States made significant commitments to protect against gender-based violations of the right to privacy. The HRC must build upon that progress and ensure a meaningful gender-perspective in the upcoming resolution, recognising in particular the importance of privacy to combatting gender-based violence online.
The troubling human rights impacts of artificial intelligence were outlined by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression in his report to the UN General Assembly in 2018. The negotiation of this resolution provides States the opportunity to ensure the Rapporteur’s recommendations are translated into tangible human rights commitments, and that this topic remains on the HRC agenda. It’s vital that States, business enterprises, and the broader technical community ensure that the design and development of artificial intelligence is grounded in respect for international human rights law, and, that the need and application of such technologies are interrogated to guard against the deployment of technologies inherently incompatible with the promotion and protection of human rights. Safeguards against discrimination and bias in such technologies are also required, together with effective safeguards to prevent the development and application of technologies where their purpose is neither necessary nor legitimate. States must ensure that further guidance to support State and non-State actors to implement their human rights obligations and responsibilities is prioritised, and call for a UN workshop and OHCHR report on the human rights impacts of artificial intelligence, with a particular focus on discrimination and bias.
Safety of journalists and media freedom
In July, government representatives from around the world gathered to sign a “Global Pledge on Media Freedom” at a conference hosted by the UK and Canada, which included a promise to “speak out and take action” against the worst violators of journalists’ human rights.
Testing this pledge, ARTICLE 19 and a coalition of media freedom organisations have urged all States that care about media freedom to use their voices at HRC42 to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all journalists arbitrarily detained in Turkey. As outlined in our recent UPR submission, there are at least 138 journalists in prison, with hundreds more facing charges for spurious “terrorism” offences.
Through HRC resolutions on the safety of journalists, States have repeatedly called for the release of arbitrarily detained journalists. Yet when it comes to specifically condemning the worst offender of jailing journalists, the HRC has been conspicuously quiet, even as the situation in Turkey has gone from bad to worse.
At HRC42, ahead of the consideration of the UPR of Turkey, Erdoğan’s government must be put on notice that its persistence in flouting UN recommendations for the release of detained journalists is not being ignored. There must be a clear warning that the government’s failure to act in response to these concerns will lead to more scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country by the UN, and not less. The interactive dialogue with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, whose mandate is due to be renewed during this HRC , provides an important opportunity to raise these concerns.
As the one year anniversary of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi approaches, the HRC must act on Saudi Arabia’s ongoing violations of human rights, and institute the recommendations put forward by Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, with regards to an investigation into this crime. Several of those recommendations relate to the UN’s broader response to threats facing journalists, including the need to increase support to national authorities in ending impunity for crimes against journalists, and conform to the High Commissioner’s vision for prevention and increased capacity building, as outlined in her pre-session statement.
Freedom of expression in Myanmar
The human rights situation in Myanmar is high up the agenda at HRC42, with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar , and the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar presenting reports to the Council, and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar providing an oral update on the human rights situation in the country. A follow-up resolution on “The Situation of Rohingya and Other Minorities in Myanmar” will be negotiated during HRC42, led by a group of States on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The HRC must continue to pursue accountability for crimes against humanity in Myanmar, alongside all other violations of international humanitarian and international criminal law. In doing so, States must also speak out against the Government’s persistent attempts to control the narrative and information flows related to the conflict.
The situation remains largely unimproved since ARTICLE 19 issued its midterm UPR report on Myanmar in June. In recent months, long-lasting internet shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin States, severely limiting access to information for persons affected by conflict, and criminal convictions of youth activists campaigning for peace, have exacerbated our concerns. Harassment against journalists, activists, and human rights defenders continues, coupled with tight controls over the media and online speech. At the same time, the government has failed to effectively respond to hate speech against minorities – a situation worsened as voices for pluralism and tolerance are frequently those targeted by repressive measures.
States at HRC42 must also engage with the Fact-Finding Mission’s detailed report on how the business ties of the Tatmadaw have driven conflict and related human rights violations in Myanmar. The report bolsters ARTICLE 19’s own findings that a comprehensive access to information law is required to increase transparency and accountability within the extractive industries sector in the country.
Ensuring that any HRC resolution addresses specifically and in detail freedom of expression violations, alongside demands for comprehensive reforms to open civic space and ensure transparency and access to information, is essential.
Civic space crackdown in Cambodia
The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia to HRC42 will provide States the opportunity to speak out to condemn the ongoing crackdown on civic space in the country. States will also be able to ensure the continued monitoring of the human rights situation in the country, by supporting the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate for a further two years.
Since the HRC last considered a resolution on Cambodia in 2017, the government has engaged in an intensive assault on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, particularly in the run-up to, and aftermath of, 2018 elections. They have dissolved the major opposition party and placed its leader Kem Sokha under house arrest, shut down almost all independent media outlets, harassed prominent human rights defenders, and widened legal restrictions on civic space.
ARTICLE 19 has joined international and regional civil society organisations to speak out against the worsening situation for human rights and the rule of law in the country, both in response to the Special Rapporteur’s report and through the specific condemnation of violations in the resolution to renew the mandate. We are also calling for the High Commissioner to additionally monitor and report back to the HRC on the worsening human rights situation.
The Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights’ report on reprisals will be debated at HRC42. Increasing the political costs of States that engage in reprisals by naming them during this debate is essential to deter future attacks and thereby increase security for human rights defenders who engage or seek to engage with the UN system.
The negotiation of an important resolution on cooperation with the UN provides States the important opportunity to bolster how the UN deals with attempts to intimidate or otherwise attack persons that seek to cooperate with the UN, in particular its human rights mechanisms.
Universal Periodic Review
The HRC will adopt a number of outcome reports as part of the Universal Periodic Review, including on Ethiopia. Together with partners, ARTICLE 19 raised serious concerns regarding the ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression in the country in a shadow report. States who champion freedom of expression at the HRC must make full use of the UPR process to drive forward action at national level to promote and protect this right: we call on States to hold the Government of Ethiopia to account and push for the acceptance of all recommendations related to freedom of expression and the right to information, and to monitor their implementation in the coming years.