On 1 April 2022, the UN Human Rights Council concluded its 49th Session in Geneva. Over a record 5 weeks, States have held debates and passed resolutions on a wide range of human rights issues, leading to the development of international standards. The session has taken place amidst escalating geopolitical tensions following unjustified acts of war by Russia on Ukraine.
ARTICLE 19 has been vocal at the session, making a number of statements on emerging freedom of expression issues, including violations in Cambodia, Guatemala, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan, and Ukraine. We have also closely followed thematic resolutions on disinformation and human rights defenders, as well as country-specific resolutions on Iran, Myanmar, and Ukraine.
ARTICLE 19 welcomes that the Human Rights Council reacted promptly and passed a strong resolution on Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. The resolution received widespread support, with 32 votes in favour, 13 abstentions, and only 2 votes against adoption from Russia and Eritrea.
The resolution condemns the human rights violations and abuses resulting from the invasion in the strongest possible terms and calls for the swift withdrawal of troops and armed groups from the entire internationally recognised territory of Ukraine. Moreover, it takes necessary steps to ensuring accountability by establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry to collect, consolidate and analyse evidence of all violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine.
We reiterate our full support for the Commission of Inquiry and call for the mechanism to be adequately financed and resourced in order for it to effectively carry out its mandate in Ukraine. Despite these positive steps forward, however, we urge further action from the United Nations. Given severe attacks on the right to freedom of expression and other human rights within the territory of Russia, which create an environment which facilitate its war against Ukraine, we call for the establishment a Special Rapporteur on Russia. Amid ongoing widespread and systematic gross violations of international law, we also urge the General Assembly to suspend Russia’s membership to the Human Rights Council.
This session also saw the consensual adoption of a new resolution on disinformation, led by Ukraine and a core group consisting of Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This resolution is adopted amid other initiatives on countering disinformation across the UN. This includes a commendable report by the UN Special Rapporteur, a resolution led by Pakistan at the UN General Assembly, and an upcoming report by the UN Secretary General.
We particularly welcome that the resolution reaffirms the “essential role” that the right to freedom of expression plays in countering disinformation while rejecting measures that rely on censorship, such as Internet shutdowns or broad and vague laws criminalising disinformation.
We urge States to follow the approach of the resolution and counter disinformation through holistic measures, including by ensuring a free, independent, plural and diverse media, protecting the safety of journalists, and promoting access to information held by public bodies.
You can read ARTICLE 19’s full analysis of the resolution here.
We commend the consensual adoption of the resolution on Myanmar, led by the European Union. The resolution successfully renews the essential mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar and maintains enhanced monitoring and reporting of the coup by the UN High Commissioner, while also containing strong substantive recommendations on the right to freedom of expression to Myanmar.
We particularly welcome that the resolution comprehensively calls on Myanmar to repeal amendments to the Penal Code, the Electronic Transactions Law, the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, and a wide array of other repressive laws introduced since the coup. It also stresses the need to immediately cease the killing, torture and other ill-treatment, bodily injury, and arbitrary detention of all civil society actors. Moreover, we appreciate sound recommendations to other States, including to protect Myanmar nationals within their borders and to respect the principle of non-refoulement, as well as to suspend arms transfers to the country.
The UN High Commissioner also presented a strong report into violations of international human rights law since the coup, concluding that the international community must “do everything within its power to support the people of Myanmar and turn this human rights catastrophe into an opportunity”.
We urge the Myanmar military to immediately implement all recommendations presented during the session, including by releasing all those detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and repealing all laws that have facilitated this onslaught on civil society.
We welcome the adoption of the resolution on Iran which renews the vital mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran. This renewal follows the Special Rapporteur presenting a commendable report at the session which highlighted institutional and structural impunity in the country and urged the international community to “call for accountability with respect to long-standing emblematic events that have been met with persistent impunity”.
During the interactive dialogue on Iran, many States took heed of the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur, raising their concerns about an “absence of a system of accountability” and how the legal system “prevents bringing perpetrators to justice”.
While we support the renewal of the Special Rapporteur, we regret that the resolution did not take up his recommendations and failed to contain any substantive language on the dire situation of human rights and crisis of impunity. We urge States to step-up their action, including by introducing substantive language in the next resolution and supporting the establishment of an independent investigatory and accountability mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyse evidence of the most serious crimes under international law in Iran.
Access to information
We warmly welcome the new report on access to information held by public entities by the OHCHR, which was presented at the session by the UN High Commissioner. We held a side event at the session which spotlighted the report and its findings, alongside the Permanent Missions of Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Namibia, the Netherlands, and Sweden to the United Nations in Geneva.
The report provides a progressive and detailed elucidation of the elements of national normative frameworks on access to information under international human rights law. We welcome in particular the recommendations on States to ensure the principle of maximum disclosure of information, to proactively publish information, to take further steps to facilitate access for marginalised individuals or groups by including specific provisions for assistance, and to establish independent and impartial oversight mechanisms with a mandate to monitor and report on the implementation of the right of access to information laws.
We call on States to fully implement the recommendations of the OHCHR and ensure right to information frameworks are compliant with international human rights standards.
For further information, see ARTICLE 19’s full analysis of the report.
Human rights defenders
We welcome the adoption of a resolution on human rights defenders operating in conflict and post-conflict situations, led by Norway. Russia called the resolution to a vote during its adoption, meaning it did not pass by consensus unlike the previous version of the resolution. It nonetheless passed with overwhelming support, with 39 votes in favour and 0 votes against adoption, with 8 abstentions.
The resolution recognises the important role played by human rights defenders in conflict and post-conflict situations, including by monitoring, documenting and raising awareness about human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law and by promoting accountability and justice. We particularly welcome the resolution also calls on states to refrain from Internet shutdowns, network restrictions or any other measures that restricts the free flow of information online, as well as to refrain from the use of surveillance technologies against human rights defenders, including through hacking.
We call on States to fully implement the recommendations of the resolution and to promote a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, including operating in conflict and post-conflict situations.
Counter-terrorism and human rights
Finally, we welcome the adoption of a resolution renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. We applauds the Council for preserving this crucial mandate as it is and reaffirming its support for this invaluable work.
We call on all States to continue engaging constructively with the mandate and look forward to working with States and partners on the upcoming counter-terrorism and human rights resolution at the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council in September 2022.
The 50th Session of the Human Rights Council will take place in June 2022. This session will be important for the promotion and protection of free speech worldwide, including with a new resolution on freedom of opinion and expression led by Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Namibia, the Netherlands, and Sweden, as well as a new resolution on protest led by Costa Rica and Switzerland.