On 27 February 2023, the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC52) kicked off in Geneva. The Human Rights Council is the premier body within the United Nations (UN) responsible for addressing human rights violations, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
HRC52 will begin with the annual High Level Segment, which involves States sending ministers and other high-level officials to Geneva to make statements outlining their major human rights priorities. We will present during the High Level Segment, holding bilateral meetings with these high-level officials to raise our core concerns related to the right to freedom of expression.
After the High-Level Segment, States will begin negotiating resolutions and holding dialogues on a wide array of thematic and country-specific human rights issues. At this session, there will be discussions on the achievements of human rights defenders and the use of technologies in counter-terrorism efforts, as well as maintained scrutiny of country-specific violations, such as in Myanmar. At the same time, States will be renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Freedom of expression
At HRC52, Canada and the Netherlands will take the lead on a technical resolution that will renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Created in 1993, this renewal will mark the 30-year anniversary of the mandate.
Over the past 30 years, the mandate has played a critical role in the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of expression worldwide. Through a wide array of cutting-edge annual reports – on issues from gender justice to disinformation, to artificial intelligence to online content moderation – the mandate has contributed to the creation of a robust set of international human rights standards and shaped the way we understand the right to freedom of expression in the digital age. At the same time, the mandate’s country-specific work, including communications and country visits, have ensured accountability for violations of the right to freedom of expression.
We will be vocal on the achievements and importance of the mandate at the session and working to ensure its renewal. Throughout the year, we will also be commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the mandate.
Myanmar will remain high on the agenda of the Council as the devastating human rights violations surrounding the coup rage on. At the session, the European Union will lead their annual resolution on the country, while both the new High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar will present reports on the dire human rights situation.
Since the Council adopted last year’s resolution, the Myanmar military’s efforts to crush dissent continue unabated. Over the past year, the Myanmar military has used CCTV and other dual-use technology to conduct mass surveillance, facilitating its human rights violations. The military continues with regional internet shutdowns to correspond with human rights violations, likely to prevent warning of their actions and the collection of evidence of the commission of atrocities. At the same time, the amendment of the Counterterrorism Law has dramatically increased the risks for those opposing the military with severe penalties, including the death penalty. The military has already executed 4 people under the law, while over 100 have been sentenced to death and are either awaiting execution or are in hiding.
We will be advocating for the Myanmar resolution to call on the junta to repeal the Counterterrorism Law and to immediately cease and refrain from all executions. We will also work towards the resolution calling on States and private companies to ban the sale, transfer and export of technologies to Myanmar that could be used for surveillance and to violate or abuse the right to privacy.
While Thailand is not formally on the agenda of the Council, we will be advocating for enhanced scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country at the session, especially with elections on the horizon in early May.
Over recent years, Thailand has seen huge numbers of protesters exercise their fundamental human rights and take to the streets to demand democratic and constitutional reform, abolition of the lèse-majesté law, and wholesale reform of the monarchy. However, the Thai authorities have exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to enact prolonged repressive emergency measures, as well as aggressively and expansively deployed Section 112 of the Criminal Code and the Public Assembly Act against protesters. As a result, hundreds of protesters remain in drawn-out legal proceedings. This crackdown comes at a time where open public discourse is more essential than ever as we approach the election period in the country. Despite this, Thailand has largely evaded scrutiny on its deteriorating human rights record in this space.
We will be calling on States to raise concerns on Thailand at the session, such as in the Item 4 General Debate, particularly urging the authorities to repeal Section 112 of the Criminal Code and to protect the right to freedom of expression in the run up to elections.
Counter-terrorism and human rights
The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism will be presenting a much-needed report on the use of technologies in counter-terrorism efforts, followed by an interactive dialogue. This comes after a resolution on the topic at the previous session,which explicitly underlined the need for respect for the rights to freedom of expression and privacy in counter-terrorism efforts.
Over recent decades, sophisticated surveillance technologies have been developed and deployed for counter-terrorism and national security purposes. This includes a growing range of biometric technologies, as well as intrusive spyware that targets the content of individuals’ digital communications and other metadata, such as their location. These tools are not only deployed far beyond the limits of the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality, but have been used to conduct surveillance against journalists, human rights defenders, politicians, and other civil society actors under the guise of combating terrorism.
We will be working at the session to highlight and promote the findings and recommendations of this new report, including through a statement in the interactive dialogue, a side event, and bilateral advocacy. In light of this report, we will be reiterating the call made by multiple Special Rapporteurs and a broad coalition of civil society actors for a moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology.
During HRC52, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC52 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.