Today, 27 February, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 34th Session (HRC34) in Geneva – over the next four weeks the UN’s top human rights body is expected to act on some of the world’s most pressing freedom of expression violations and abuses.
The agenda is tightly packed: this Session kicks off with the UN Secretary General and high level representatives of the world’s governments setting out their visions for human rights in 2017. Under the multi-coloured ceiling of the Human Rights Council chamber, a month of debates and discussions on human rights will follow, with hundreds of parallel negotiations and meetings taking place alongside.
The Session will culminate on the 23 and 24 of March: States will adopt resolutions with commitments to act against human rights violations and abuses, including of the right to freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19 will be present throughout the Session to advocate for progressive free expression standards, and to hold States to account where they are failing to live up to their obligations and commitments.
Our priorities for HRC34 are:
- Accountability for freedom of expression violations in Turkey, Myanmar, and Iran;
- The adoption of strong resolutions on the right to privacy in the digital age, on freedom of religion or belief, and on combatting religious intolerance, with clear commitments to implementation;
- Mandate renewals for the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on human rights defenders, and for the appointment of a new mandate holder on freedom of assembly and association;
- Opposition to the “terrorism and human rights” resolution, which threatens to undermine freedom of expression;
- Recognition of the dangers facing environmental human rights defenders, and the need for greater legal protections for them.
Though many of these issues were raised in Geneva last March, 2017 is a new year with a new Human Rights Council membership. The 47 member-states with voting powers include some of the world’s worst violators of freedom of expression: it is therefore essential that other States stand up for freedom of expression and ensure accountability for violations and abuses.
Scrutiny on Turkey, Myanmar, and Iran
The deteriorating situation for freedom of expression in Turkey, as observed by the UN Special Rapporteur following his November 2016 visit, demands a robust response from States.
After a failed coup attempt in July 2016, the Turkish authorities have accelerated their crackdown on freedom of expression, arresting more than 150 journalists and media workers and forcibly closing hundreds of media outlets and civil society organisations. The Turkish government is now using state of emergency provisions implemented in the wake of the coup to legitimise the repression of any dissent. With the vast majority of oppositional voices silenced, a Constitutional referendum scheduled for April threatens to consolidate executive power, at the risk of authoritarianism becoming the new norm.
On 13 March, from 3:00 – 4:30pm in Room XXVII, ARTICLE 19 will hold a side event on Turkey with partner organisations and journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders. Our message to States will be simple: if you claim to support freedom of expression at the HRC, you cannot remain silent on Turkey during the Item 4 General Debate.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, will report to the HRC on 13 March, and the European Union will lead a resolution calling for the renewal of her mandate for another year under Item 4 (country situations of concern).
ARTICLE 19 strongly supports renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in view of the serious allegations of human rights violations, which may amount to crimes against humanity, against the Rohingya during recent military operations in northern Rakhine State. We are particularly concerned that the government and military have blocked access to the affected areas to journalists seeking to verify these allegations, and by evidence suggesting civilians that have spoken to the media have been targeted.
Any HRC resolution on Myanmar should also reflect that the freedom of expression environment more broadly has not improved substantially under the NLD-led government. Outdated laws continue to be used to constrain expression, including provisions of the Unlawful Associations Act, Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law, and the Penal Code. Most worryingly, online speech is increasingly being curtailed through the broad criminal defamation provisions under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. Persons detained under these laws for exercising their right to freedom of expression must be released, and a comprehensive agenda to reform these laws and prevent further abuses should be initiated with the full and effective participation of civil society.
In Iran, an abysmal situation for freedom of expression ahead of elections, and continuing non-cooperation with the Special Rapporteur mandate, necessitate condemnation from the HRC and sustained international scrutiny.
In the interactive dialogue with the new mandate-holder, Asma Jahangir, scheduled for 13 March, States must raise freedom of expression concerns, including the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, stifling cyber policies facilitating a crackdown on online expression, insecurity for journalists and bloggers, restrictions on unions, and the targeting of environmental human rights defenders.
HRC member states that are committed to human rights owe the Iranian people support for the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. This voted resolution has not enjoyed unanimous support in recent years. Our eyes will be on Brazil, returning to the HRC this year, and on Indonesia, Kenya, and South Africa, as well as newcomers to membership like Tunisia.
Progressive free expression standards and implementation
States will consider a range of thematic resolutions at HRC34 that present opportunities for the strengthening of their freedom of expression commitments. These serve to demonstrate the international community’s human rights priorities for legal and policy action, while reflecting (and often shaping) how States understand their international human rights obligations.
Renewing consensus on HRC Resolution 16/18, the landmark 2011 agreement to combat intolerance on the basis of religion or belief, is essential. ARTICLE 19 launches today a briefing document for stakeholders explaining the significance of this initiative for freedom of expression, in particular against a global backdrop in which, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned, “hate is being mainstreamed”.
During the March Session in 2016, ARTICLE 19 told States that implementation of Resolution 16/18 is a test of the HRC’s effectiveness. In the intervening 12 months, progress was made with a productive meeting of the Istanbul Process in Singapore, and our briefing sets out four areas of action for States to enhance implementation further still. This requires States to lead by example, including by repealing blasphemy laws and other unjustifiable limitations on freedom of expression, as recommended in the Rabat Plan of Action, and through investment in the continuity of a more visible, transparent, and inclusive Istanbul Process.
Most immediately, it is important that the next host for the 7th Istanbul Process meeting is identified during HRC34, and that the new resolution addresses the low level of reporting on implementation of the resolution, including by opening the reporting process up to national human rights institutions and civil society.
We are calling on all States to set out their commitments during the interactive dialogues with Special Rapporteurs addressing these issues – most notably on the report of Ahmed Shaheed as the new Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the report of Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, which focuses on the impact of fundamentalism and extremism on the enjoyment of human rights. States must also stress the importance of the Rabat Plan of Action and the strong relationship between freedom of expression and equality during the 17 March debate on racial profiling and incitement to racial hatred.
The right to privacy online will be the subject of a resolution led by Brazil and Germany together with Austria, Liechtenstein, Mexico and Switzerland. ARTICLE 19 will be advocating for a resolution that affirms that the meaningful exercise of the right to freedom of expression depends on strong privacy protections, including protection from surveillance. This requires language specifying that any use of surveillance by States must be provided for by law, and must be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate objective; it also requires the inclusion of strong commitments to protect and not interfere with anonymity and encryption.
On 7 March, from 11am – 1pm in Room XXIV, ARTICLE 19 is joining forces with the Privacy in the Digital Age core group for a side event to discuss the relationship between the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Featuring interventions from both Special Rapporteurs on these issues, the event will also see the launch of ARTICLE 19’s new Principles on Privacy and Freedom of Expression (watch this space!)
Following the event, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy will present his second annual report to the HRC, which is expected to include a focus on oversight mechanisms of government surveillance activities (to be published in due course, A/HRC/34/60).
Two crucial resolutions at HRC34 will renew the Special Rapporteur mandates for freedom of opinion and expression, and for human rights defenders. These mandates, currently held by David Kaye and Michel Forst, are indispensible mechanisms for the international community and civil society, being the primary tool available to them to monitor and respond to violations of freedom of expression and the rights of defenders where States are failing.
It is therefore imperative that both of these resolutions, led by the United States and Norway respectively, receive the unequivocal support of all States. Support must go beyond backing the resolution: States must meaningfully engage with the Special Rapporteurs on the communications they receive, ensure that commitments to country visits are made concrete, and provide the necessary resources to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) so that both Rapporteurs can fulfill their mandates.
HRC34 will also see Maina Kiai conclude his term after six years as Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, with his successor to be appointed in the closing days of the Session. Maina has been formidable as the first mandate holder on freedom of assembly and of association, and sets a high bar for his replacement to meet.
Defending against hostile initiatives
Egypt is expected to reintroduce a resolution on “the effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of human rights”, which ARTICLE 19 opposed when it was first run in 2016 as it endangered free expression standards.
We will follow negotiations closely to safeguard against language that States may exploit to justify stifling independent media and targeting dissent online and offline under the pretext of countering terrorism. The OHCHR report called for in the 2016 resolution is clear that such measures violate international human rights law.
We instead urge States to support the Mexico-led Resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and to engage with the Special Rapporteur during the interactive dialogue on his annual report, which includes reflections on the needs of victims of terrorism.
The reports of the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, and on the environment, John Knox, raise the failure of States to address violence and threats against environmental defenders. In 2015 alone, there were 185 confirmed killings of environmental and land defenders around the world.
ARTICLE 19 is particularly concerned about the targeting of environmental human rights defenders in Latin America, and urges States to consider raising the recommendations of our 2016 report in the interactive dialogues with both Special Rapporteurs.