On 12 September 2022, the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC51) kicked off in Geneva. The Human Rights Council is the premier body within the United Nations responsible for addressing human rights violations, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
A wide array of important thematic issues will be on the agenda at the session, including resolutions on the safety of journalists and counter-terrorism, as well as dialogues on the right to privacy in the digital age and gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression. At the same time, there will be enhanced scrutiny of country-specific violations, such as in Cambodia and Myanmar, while the release of the High Commissioner’s recent report on Xinjiang is likely to be widely discussed at the Council.
Safety of journalists
Austria will take the lead on a new resolution on the safety of journalists at the session. Since 2012, the HRC has adopted resolutions on this topic on a biennial basis, creating an elaborate and ever-growing set of international standards to protect journalists. The previous version of the resolution took an ambitious approach, setting strong standards for governments amid the Covid-19 pandemic. It is essential that the upcoming resolution continues this trend and addresses new and emerging threats to the safety of journalists worldwide.
The threats faced by journalists are only growing more complex. Across the world, journalists are killed, attacked and harassed for their vital work, only to be met with ineffective investigations and impunity. They are faced with increasingly insidious forms of legal harassment, such as strategic lawsuits against public participation (known as SLAPPs) from powerful actors attempting to bankrupt and silence them. At the same time, mandatory licensing or restrictive accreditation schemes continue to undermine the work of journalists and media workers.
ARTICLE 19 will be advocating for the resolution to contain strong calls on States to protect journalists from these threats throughout the session. We will also be calling on governments to increase and accelerate their efforts to implement these commitments in law, policy, and practice.
Terrorism and human rights
During this session, the Council will consider a resolution on addressing the human rights impacts of terrorist attacks and of those measures taken in response to terrorism. The Council last addressed these issues two years ago during its 45th Session. The promotion and protection of human rights and ensuring the rule of law are key in the fight against terrorism. This resolution will need to reiterate once again that all measures States take to counter terorrism must comply with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international refugee law.
Too often, we have found that counter-terrorism measures are being misused to crack down on civic space, muzzle journalists and target human rights defenders, leaving no room for dissent or alternative views. The concept of terrorism has been abused to restrict the full and unfettered enjoyment of several fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of religion or belief. The right to privacy in particular has been besieged in recent years under the guise of countering terrorism, ranging from digital technologies being used for mass or targeted surveillance without transparency, accountability or adequate regulatory frameworks to internet companies being pressure to remove ‘terrorism-related’ content without valid legal basis in accordance with international law.
ARTICLE 19 will push for the resolution to unequivocally place the respect for human rights and rule of law at the center of all and any counter-terrorism efforts by States.
The Special Rapporteur on Cambodia will present a report on the human rights situation in the country at the session, which will be followed by an interactive dialogue. With national elections on the horizon, it is more essential than ever that States hold Cambodia to account for the continued decline for the right to freedom of expression, media freedom and civic space.
In 2022, the Cambodian authorities continued their attack on online expression, increasingly targeting individuals for critical online commentary. Despite warnings from multiple UN Special Rapporteurs, the authorities plan to implement the National Internet Gateway, which will bring unprecedented restrictions to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression and information. At the same time, they have continued to target journalists and media workers with threats, harassment and legal action, particularly those reporting on land and environmental issues, while also revoking the licences of digital media outlets.
We will be urging States to use the interactive dialogue as an opportunity to call on Cambodia to fully endorse the right to freedom of expression and protect civic space, including online, in the context of upcoming elections.
Gender and freedom of expression
At HRC51, the annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective will have the theme of overcoming gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression. This panel discussion follows the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression’s recent report on gender justice, signalling increased commitment to this important issue.
ARTICLE 19 has long raised concerns that entrenched biases and patriarchal norms lead to structural and systemic barriers that actively exclude women and people with diverse gender identities from expressing themselves and accessing information. In particular, we have documented the growth of online abuse and harassment against women journalists to threaten, silence and stigmatise them, which can lead to self-censorship or to them being pushed out from the public sphere, online spaces or the journalism profession altogether. We believe that there is a desperate need to create an enabling environment, both online and offline, for women and people of diverse gender identities to express themselves freely and safely.
ARTICLE 19 will be closely following the panel discussion and using it as an opportunity to remind States to remove structural and systemic barriers for women and people of diverse gender identities, as well as discriminatory laws, policies and practices that impede the full enjoyment of their right to freedom of expression.
At HRC51, the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar will present a report and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar will deliver an oral update amid devastating human rights violations being waged in country.
ARTICLE 19 has been documenting widespread violations of the right to privacy in the country. Against the backdrop of the military coup, CCTV cameras are rapidly being installed with very little transparency about who buys them or how they are used. CCTV cameras form an essential prerequisite for artificial intelligence-based biometric surveillance technologies that make up smart cities’ infrastructure, such as facial recognition, and there is growing concern that the military are using these cameras as tools of mass surveillance to monitor and arrest anyone who opposes them. At the same time, internet shutdowns and restrictions continue, which have arguably contributed to the commission of international crimes, from murders to torture.
ARTICLE 19 will be speaking out at the session to encourage various UN mechanisms investigating human rights violations in the country to fully examine and scrutinise these issues.
Right to privacy
The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) will be presenting a report on the right to privacy in the digital age, providing an opportunity for an in-depth dialogue into the human rights violations arising from new and emerging technologies. This report was mandated by the recent right to privacy in the digital age resolution, which has now established a robust set of international standards.
ARTICLE 19 submitted inputs for this report, focusing on the rapid deployment of biometric technologies for mass surveillance of the public across the globe. These technologies bring detrimental impacts on the enjoyment of human rights, deterring individuals from expressing their ideas or religious beliefs in public or from participating in protests.
We will be urging States to implement the OHCHR’s recommendation for a moratorium on the domestic and transnational sale and use of surveillance systems that can be used for the identification or classification of individuals in public places, including biometric technologies, until adequate human rights safeguards are in place. We will also be calling for States to further establish clear ‘red lines’ and explicitly recognise that some technologies can never be justified under international human rights law, including emotion recognition technologies.
During HRC51, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC51 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.