Today, 28 February 2022, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 49th Session in Geneva (HRC49). Across five weeks, the Council will hold debates on thematic and country-specific human rights issues, as well as negotiate and adopt resolutions, including on emerging freedom of expression concerns.
HRC49 will no doubt be affected by escalating geopolitical tensions taking place amidst an ongoing large-scale war in Europe. As HRC49 kicked off, its Member States voted to hold an urgent debate on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The invasion, a blatant breach of international law, has led to gross human rights violations, including against the free and independent media and individuals who took to the streets to protest the war in Russia and Belarus.
ARTICLE 19 will advocate for progressive international standards for the right to freedom of expression at the session. We will also speak out and encourage action where governments are failing to live up to their international obligations, including against mass detentions in Belarus, institutional and systemic impunity for human rights violations in Iran, and the ongoing repressive coup in Myanmar.
The Special Rapporteur on Iran will be presenting a damning report at the session, highlighting ‘institutional impunity and the absence of a system for accountability’ that permeates the legal and political system of the country. Against this backdrop, a group of States will lead a technical resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran.
ARTICLE 19 believes that UN action is urgently required in order to tackle the crisis of impunity and support the people in Iran in their quest for justice. This impunity is not isolated or limited to certain violations, but is rather systematic and institutional and guaranteed and perpetuated by Iran’s legal and judicial structures. The November 2019 protests, characterised by impunity for the killing, maiming and detention of thousands of protesters and bystanders, is a tragic and emblematic example. Instead of taking any steps to address the dire human rights situation and amend the country’s flawed legal and judicial framework, the authorities continue to pass laws that further devastate the right to freedom of expression and other human rights, particularly online. Iran’s Parliament recently ratified central elements of the ‘User Protection Bill’,which will see Iran’s Internet infrastructure and Internet gateways placed in the control of the armed forces and security agencies that routinely commit gross violations of human rights with absolute impunity. This will facilitate further shutdowns and online censorship which so far have allowed for the commission and concealment of gross violations of human rights and crimes under international law, in particular at times of protests.
ARTICLE 19 stresses that the upcoming session cannot be business as usual. While it is absolutely essential that States support the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, it is time for more action. At a minimum, the upcoming resolution must include substantive paragraphs underlining the importance of ending impunity for human rights violations. We will also urge States to voice support for 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.
Human rights defenders
At HRC49, the situation for human rights defenders will be high on the agenda. Norway will lead a resolution on human rights defenders operating in conflict and post-conflict situations, while the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders will present her annual report focusing on human rights defenders working against corruption.
ARTICLE 19 emphasises the essential role human rights defenders play in societies, including in conflict and post-conflict situations through their documentation and reporting on violations of international law. Despite this, human rights defenders, particularly those facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, often experience extreme threats to their safety and security in conflict and post-conflict situations. Where there are violations against human rights defenders, impunity often prevails.
ARTICLE 19 will be advocating for the Council to adopt a strong resolution that reflects the gravity of the situation human rights defenders face in conflict and post-conflict situations, with language urging States conduct impartial, prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations into all attacks against human rights defenders, including exhausting lines of enquiry that link attacks to their human rights work. It is also essential the resolution contends with terrorism and extremism being used as a justification to target, threaten, or limit activities of human rights defenders operating in conflict or post-conflict areas, and their access to funding sources.
A year on from the military coup in Myanmar, the human rights crisis shows no signs of relenting. Myanmar will remain high on the agenda of the Council, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presenting her long-awaited report into violations of international human rights law since the coup. The European Union will also bring forward a substantive resolution to address the human rights situation in the country and to renew the vital mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar.
ARTICLE 19 and partners have detailed severe and sweeping human rights violations in the context of the coup. Amidst Internet shutdowns, the junta has killed more than 1,500 civilians, while more than 12,000 people have been detained across the country. The junta has developed a complex, repressive legal framework to silence free expression and severely restrict the work of civil society groups. With increased online and offline surveillance, many civil society actors and military critics fear speaking out.
We will be calling for accountability for these violations throughout the session. We will also take part in negotiations on the resolution to ensure it fully addresses freedom of expression concerns, including explicitly urging the military to repeal new amendments to the Penal Code and other repressive laws, such as the Electronic Transactions Law, the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, and the Draft Cyber Security Law.
At HRC49, the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) will present a report following its examination of all alleged human rights violations committed in the context of the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath in Belarus. With the mandate of this examination coming to its close, the EU will lead a resolution to consider its renewal to continue the heightened scrutiny of the human rights situation in Belarus.
The OHCHR examination, mandated last year, continues to be of paramount importance. An onslaught of legislative amendments over recent months have silenced free expression, banned forms of public protest against the authorities, and all but criminalised human rights work. The media face systematic persecution, with journalists and media workers frequently being labeled as ‘extremist’ or targeted under defamation charges. There are currently over 1,000 political prisoners behind bars in the country, including at least 31 journalists and media workers. Despite this, the OHCHR examination has only received around 50 per cent of the budget for its work and only became fully operational in the final months of 2021.
In light of this, ARTICLE 19 has joined partners to urge all Member and Observer States to renew the OHCHR examination of the human rights situation in Belarus.
Right to information
The High Commissioner will be presenting a new OHCHR report on good practices for establishing national normative frameworks that foster access to information held by public entities at the session. This report, mandated by the freedom of opinion and expression resolution, will help to consolidate and build on international standards on the topic.
The right to know is a crucial part of the right to freedom of expression. The ability to access information held by public and public-affiliated bodies strengthens individuals’ autonomy and participation in public affairs, fosters sustainable development, and makes public bodies accountable for their actions. Ultimately, the free flow of information in society helps to build stable and resilient democracies and to tackle corruption, disinformation and mistrust.
ARTICLE 19 will be working at the session to highlight the key findings and recommendations of the report, as well as drawing attention to gaps in international standards, including by co-organising a side event.
Counter-Terrorism and human rights
The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism will present her report following up on the 2010 renditions report, offering a well-researched perspective of the legacy of the use of rendition in the fight against terrorism, and the resulting gross violations of human rights and crimes under international law, in the past decade. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate will also be up for renewal at the session.
ARTICLE 19 will co-host two side events with partners at the session, addressing rendition practices in different corners of the world, as well as contemporary secret detention programmes. We will also be advocating for the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in its current form.
During HRC49, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC49 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.