UN: Human Rights Council must progress standards on free expression

UN: Human Rights Council must progress standards on free expression - Digital

Room XX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

Today, on 21 June 2021, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 47th Session in Geneva (HRC47). Over the next 3 and a half 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 Council’s agenda for the upcoming session is packed with many issues of critical importance for the right to freedom of expression, including through resolutions and interactive dialogues. 

ARTICLE 19 will be closely following the session and advocating for progressive international standards for the right to freedom of expression, as well as holding governments to account where they are failing to live up to their obligations and commitments. This will be a challenge, given that the Council’s current membership includes States that are among the worst offenders when it comes to violations of the right to freedom of expression.


Human rights on the Internet 


At HRC47, a group of States – including Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia and the United States – will bring forward a substantive resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resolution will have a thematic focus on the ever-timely issue of Internet access and bridging digital divides. This will be a follow-up in a series of resolutions, the previous version adopted in July 2018, which first made the landmark declaration that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online”.

Given the thematic focus of the resolution, it is a crucial opportunity to build on current international standards by providing more concrete, specific recommendations to States on how exactly to enhance Internet access and bridge digital divides instead of vague commitments. ARTICLE 19 will be advocating for the resolution to call on States to adopt a broad range of measures to remove barriers to accessing the Internet and create an enabling and inclusive Internet regulatory environment, including but not limited to access to open spectrum and infrastructure sharing.

Aside from calling on States to adopt a range of positive measures to bridge the digital divide, it is equally essential that it unequivocally condemn not just Internet shutdowns but a myriad of other intentional disruptions that we are seeing in countries worldwide, including network throttling, website blocking and filtering, and other restrictions to telecommunication networks and mobile services. These measures have severely undermined Internet access in recent years, especially during particularly important contexts, such as elections or protests.


Freedom of expression and disinformation


The upcoming HRC session will also see Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression present her first annual thematic report on the ever-pressing issue of disinformation. The report provides a number of crucial recommendations to both States and private actors to tackle disinformation whilst promoting and protecting the right to freedom of expression.

Although problems posed by ‘disinformation’ are not new, in recent years and months the issue has emerged to permeate an increasingly digital society, triggering further debates over politics, journalism and social media. The concerns over disinformation came into the spotlight particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and debates about the effectiveness of measures to suppress it. However, the furore and heated debates that disinformation and similar concepts generate in public and policy debate often distract from the threat posed to the right to freedom of expression by the prospect of State-controlled information or an opaque selective sorting of media content by dominant digital platforms.

We will be raising awareness of the Special Rapporteur’s key findings and recommendations throughout the session, including through our intervention in the interactive dialogue and a side event on the topic. We will also be encouraging States to take the floor during the interactive dialogue to recalibrate the debate around disinformation and to present the right to freedom of expression not as the cause but an essential part of the remedy for the problem, including by taking measures such as promoting a diverse and independent media, protecting journalists and whistle-blowers, ensuring open access to information held by public bodies, and investing in media and digital literacy.


New and emerging technologies


HRC47 will also see States deliberate another digital rights-related resolution on new and emerging technologies. This resolution – led by Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Morocco, Singapore and South Korea – is a short and outcome-focused text rather than aiming to establish detailed normative standards on specific issues related to the topic. It nonetheless carries significant implications for how these technologies affect the enjoyment of human rights across the globe.

We have raised concern that States and UN bodies risk falling into the trap of “technology solutionism” and that certain technologies can and will be primarily used for beneficial purposes. We think that there is a need to shift the narrative, with the default position focusing on the human rights impacts of these technologies rather than their reported positive outcomes. This is particularly important given mounting evidence of the severe harms caused by certain technologies, including biometric technologies like facial and emotion recognition. We will therefore be looking for this resolution to place human rights at the centre of its approach.

We will also support calls for the resolution to mandate an outcome which promotes greater communication and collaboration between the HRC and different stakeholders, such as the International Telecommunication Union, on the issue of new and emerging technologies. However, we remind States that the Human Rights Council is the most appropriately placed body to be establishing human rights norms and standards to be implemented by others, given that it holds the expertise and ultimately less likely to be influenced by other factors, such as convenience, cost and innovation.




At the previous session of the HRC, States mandated the UN High Commissioner to head a Fact-Finding Mission on Belarus to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse information and evidence of human rights violations. HRC47 will see States maintain scrutiny over Belarus, with the EU leading a resolution to assess the situation and renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus. The Special Rapporteur herself will also be presenting an annual report on the human rights situation, creating an opportunity for an interactive dialogue to discuss persisting and emerging problems.

The recent hijacking of Ryanair Flight 4978 and subsequent arrest of editor and blogger Raman Pratasevich marks the outrageous climax of a broader pattern of repression of the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in Belarus that drastically intensified after elections in August 2020. Since the elections, there have been more than 550 instances of arbitrary detention of journalists, who have collectively spent more than 3,000 days in jail. Amidst ongoing crackdowns against journalists, the authorities have simultaneously signed new amendments to the Mass Media Law that enable further repression of independent media.

We will be urging States to use both the resolution and interactive dialogue as an opportunity to make explicit calls on Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release all detained or imprisoned journalists and media actors, including Raman Pratasevich, as well as to repeal recent amendments to the Mass Media Law. We will also be urging the Fact-Finding Mission to fully examine these issues in its investigation, with a view to contributing to accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.


Protests and Internet shutdowns


The Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association will also be presenting an addendum to his annual report on the issue of Internet shutdowns in the context of protests, assessing global trends and making recommendations on the topic.

We have long documented various instances of Internet shutdowns in countries across the globe. This includes our recent report detailing the mechanisms, infrastructure, and laws and policies that led to mass Internet shutdowns in Iran surrounding protests in November 2019. During the interactive dialogue, we will be raising these country-specific examples of Internet shutdowns during protests and reminding States that such measures are always a disproportionate and unnecessary infringement of the right to freedom of expression and are never justified under human rights law.


During HRC47, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC47 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.