Today, on 19 June 2023, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 53rd Session in Geneva (HRC53). Over the next four weeks, major human rights issues will be debated and acted on, with significant implications for the protection of freedom of expression and related rights globally.
ARTICLE 19 will be closely following the session and advocating for progressive international standards relevant 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. Our priorities include a new resolution on new and emerging digital technologies, as well as discussions on sustainable development and freedom of expression and ensuring accountability for human rights violations against protesters. At the same time, we will be maintaining scrutiny of the human rights crises unfolding in Belarus, Iran, and Myanmar.
New and emerging digital technologies
At HRC53, a group of States – including Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Morocco, Singapore and South Korea – will bring forward a substantive resolution on new and emerging digital technologies and human rights, with a focus on artificial intelligence. With growing attention and interest on artificial intelligence at the international level, this resolution is an important opportunity to get ahead of the curve and set strong normative safeguards.
We will be advocating for this resolution to mirror recommendations made by the High Commissioner by establishing ‘red lines’ and calling for bans on new and emerging digital technologies that cannot be operated in compliance with international human rights law. As an example, emotion recognition technologies carry enormous potential for harm and can never meet the narrowly defined tests of necessity, proportionality, legality, and legitimacy. We stress that the timing of such a call – before harmful technologies become widespread – is crucial for the effective protection of human rights. We will also call for the resolution to mainstream the need for human rights due diligence and impact assessments throughout the lifecycle of viable artificial intelligence technologies.
We will also support this resolution mandating an enhanced role of the Office of the High Commissioner in providing expertise on the human rights implications of new and emerging digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, especially to other UN bodies, mechanisms, and processes. We think bolstering existing expertise will be vital in ensuring a consistent human rights-first approach to various initiatives relevant to this topic.
Sustainable development and freedom of expression
Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, will present her annual thematic report on sustainable development and freedom of expression. As world leaders prepare to review progress on meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in September, this is a timely reminder of the essential importance of freedom of expression to achieving sustainable development.
We share the view that the right to freedom of expression and information is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development. However, only 15% of the world’s population – or around 1 in every 7 people – live in countries where they can seek, receive, or share information freely and safely. There is a pervasive culture of secrecy worldwide, where access to information laws are non-existent or not implemented in line with international standards, critically undermining sustainable development. Across the globe, those on the frontlines of sustainable development and using their voice to expose corruption and other illegal activities – especially journalists, media workers, and human rights defenders – are facing censorship and severe attacks, including killings, often with impunity.
We will be raising awareness of the Special Rapporteur’s key findings and recommendations throughout the session, including through our bilateral meetings and our intervention in the interactive dialogue. We will particularly be engaging with those States that most vocally support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development yet continue to suppress the right to expression at the domestic level.
Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, will also present his annual report on advancing accountability for serious human rights violations related to protest. With crackdowns on protests on the rise worldwide, this report comes at a critical time.
We contributed to this report with research from our #FreeToProtest campaign, which aims to ensure that all people, especially those who face discrimination, are empowered to exercise their right to protest. We have found that in countries across the globe, security forces frequently threaten, intimidate, physically assault, arbitrarily arrest, and detain people who protest together to air their grievances. Too often, this is met with complete impunity. We are particularly alarmed at the unfolding situation in Kenya, where it is feared that at least 10 persons have died in recent protest-related incidents, with a majority being linked to the use of excessive force by police.
We will be taking part in the interactive dialogue on the report, calling on governments to fully implement the recommendations of the report, particularly by investigating, prosecuting, and ensuring accountability for all human rights violations committed in the context of protests.
Social media monitoring
In September, Brazil and Germany will co-lead their biennial resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age. Alongside Privacy International and Dejusticia, we will be hosting a side event at this session on the issue of social media monitoring to ensure this issue is central to discussions on the resolution later in the year. This will take place at 15.00-16.00 on 23 June 2023 in Room XXV.
Over the last decade, we have seen governments using social media intelligence for wildly differing uses, including to monitor protests. The type and amount of personal information that is collected and analysed is often staggering and includes sensitive personal data, such as facial images and other sensitive information. In its path, it has the potential for serious violations of human rights, including the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
Through this joint side event, we will highlight the harms of social media monitoring in its use by state agencies and private companies and call on delegations to include robust recommendations on this issue in the upcoming resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age.
During HRC53, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC53 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session.