On 11 September 2023, the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC54) began in Geneva. Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, kicked the session off with his global update, with a clear message that human rights are the antidote to prevailing politics of distraction, deception, indifference and repression.
ARTICLE 19 will be present at HRC54 to advocate for progressive international standards relevant for the right to freedom of expression, as well as to hold governments to account where they are failing to live up to their obligations and commitments. Our priorities for HRC54 include a new resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, as well as discussions on religious hatred and the use of disinformation laws for arbitrary detention. At the same time, we will be maintaining scrutiny of the human rights crises unfolding in Cambodia, Myanmar, Russia, and Ukraine.
Right to privacy
Brazil and Germany – together with a core group consisting of Austria, Liechtenstein and Mexico – will lead the next iteration of the right to privacy in the digital age resolution at the session. The UN has passed resolutions on this topic every year since the Snowden Revelations in 2013, alternating between the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council, and has now developed a robust set of international standards. However, with threats to our privacy growing, this new resolution must strengthen existing commitments.
We will be calling for the resolution to strengthen standards on biometric technologies. Across the globe, governments and private actors are increasingly using biometric technologies to analyse the way people act, look, and express themselves in public and private spheres, with detrimental effects on the right to privacy. It is essential that the resolution call on governments to cease the use of biometric technologies for mass surveillance of public spaces, as well as recommending a total ban on untenable biometric technologies, such as emotion recognition.
We will also advocate for the resolution to address the issue of social media monitoring. Alongside Privacy International, we held a side event on this topic at the previous session, showing how governments are using social media intelligence for wildly differing uses, including to monitor protests. In its path, it has the potential for serious violations of human rights, including the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. It is now time for the resolution to include strong recommendations to ensure the collection, analysis and sharing of social media intelligence is in strict conformity with human rights standards and data protection frameworks.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will give an oral update followed by an interactive dialogue on the drivers, root causes and human rights impacts of religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. This debate follows a problematic resolution on this topic at the previous session and comes in a context of efforts to reintroduce international standards on the blasphemy of religions, in response to the burning of holy books in recent months.
We share the dismay over the rise of hate against persons on the basis of their religion or belief worldwide, which is ultimately driven by the shrinking of civic space and a lack of dialogue, debate, and dissent. It is clear that blasphemy laws do not address the drivers, root causes or human rights impact of religious hatred, but rather fuel division and religious intolerance, often facilitating and legitimising horrifying human rights violations against religious minorities.
We will be making a joint statement during the interactive dialogue, including to call on delegations to resist efforts to focus on blasphemy and instead to reaffirm their commitment to existing frameworks to combat religious hatred, such as Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action.
Arbitrary detention and disinformation
The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will be presenting their annual report at the session, which is partially focused on laws on spreading disinformation. This comes against a backdrop of a growing number of UN initiatives and reports on disinformation.
We too have documented how disinformation laws are used in many contexts to harass and detain scores of journalists and media workers, human rights defenders, and other civil society actors. We note how laws criminalising disinformation or vague concepts such as ‘false news’ are inherently out of line with international standards – the falsity of information in itself is never a legitimate basis for restricting the right to freedom of expression. We have long maintained that the only way to combat disinformation is through positive measures that embrace the right to freedom of expression, from protecting media freedom and the safety of journalists to media and information literacy.
We will be taking part in the interactive dialogue on the report, calling on governments to fully implement its recommendations, particularly by repealing legislation criminalising the spread of disinformation, as well as to release all individuals currently facing charges related to disinformation.
Japan will lead the resolution on advisory services and technical assistance for Cambodia. This resolution, passed every two years, addresses substantive human rights concerns and renews the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia. The Special Rapporteur himself will also be presenting an annual report on the human rights situation, creating an opportunity for an interactive dialogue to discuss ongoing human rights violations.
Since the previous resolution on Cambodia, there has been severe violations of the right to freedom of expression, with scores of journalists, human rights defenders, non-governmental organisations, and protesters depicted as enemies of the state and punished for their speech. The arbitrary revocation of the media licence for the Voice of Democracy is another assault on the country’s once flourishing independent media and ‘leaves virtually no free media outlets operating in the country’. During the recent election period, the government engaged in serious attacks on the political opposition, blocked access to critical websites and social media accounts, and arbitrary arrested and detained political activists.
We will be calling for a strong resolution that not only renews the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia but also mandates enhanced monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the benchmarks previously presented by the Special Rapporteur to the Council. We will call for specific language in the resolution on laws, policies, and practices that restrict the right to freedom of expression, as well as a call on the government to comply with the Human Rights Committee’s 2022 Concluding Observations.
During HRC54, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC54 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.