On 22 February 2020, the UN Human Rights Council began its 46th Session in Geneva (HRC46). Across the next 4 weeks, major human rights issues will be debated and acted on, with significant implications for the rights to freedom of expression and information worldwide.
At HRC46, States must speak out and mobilise action against country-specific human rights violations. Across the globe, we are witnessing sweeping crackdowns on the freedom of expression, with journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society actors facing rising attacks and harassment for their criticism, dissent or political opposition. With a repressive military coup and crackdown on free expression in Myanmar, widespread detentions of journalists in Belarus, and an increase in repressive laws in Iran, it is more important than ever for further accountability and scrutiny.
At the session, States will also have the opportunity to progress international standards in many key thematic areas, from counter-terrorism and human rights to the protection of human rights defenders.
At HRC46, the European Union will bring forward a substantive resolution on Myanmar to address the human rights situation in the country and to renew the vital mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. This resolution follows the recent Special Session on Myanmar which saw the Human Rights Council deplore and call for the end of the ongoing military coup which has crushed the rights to freedom of expression and information.
We will be working to ensure that the upcoming resolution further addresses and elaborates on the freedom of expression concerns emerging out of the military coup. It is essential that the resolution calls for the repeal of both the planned Cyber Security Law and amendments to the Penal Code which would devastate the right to freedom of expression and information and greatly extend the powers of military authorities to restrict and punish speech through overbroad and vague provisions. It must also condemn severe internet shutdowns which have restricted the free flow of information and facilitated human rights violations. At the same time, the resolution should create a mandate for enhanced monitoring and reporting of the unfolding human rights crisis.
We are calling for States to champion these concerns during negotiations on the resolution, as well as to speak out against gross violations to the right to freedom of expression in their oral statements at the session.
At the previous session of the Council, we helped push for and participated in an Urgent Debate on Belarus which mandated the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to monitor and report on the unfolding human rights crisis in the country. Belarus remains high on the agenda at HRC46, with the European Union bringing forward a follow-up resolution to potentially continue or strengthen scrutiny measures.
In Belarus, we have witnessed severe crackdowns on the freedom of expression and related rights. Over recent months, we have observed over 400 arrests of journalists for covering protests, with 10 journalists currently in jail. Within the past week, security forces raided the homes of at least 30 journalists and human rights defenders, during which their equipment and even money was seized.
While we welcome the Council’s increased monitoring and reporting of the situation, we join civil society’s calls to ensure that this is further increased and greater accountability mechanisms are put in place to collect and preserve evidence of crimes under international law, and ultimately ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. We will also call on all States to maintain their scrutiny of the Belarusian authorities’ human rights record in their statements.
HRC46 marks the ten-year anniversary of the creation of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, and the Council will be considering a technical resolution to renew this vital mandate and extend monitoring and reporting of the human rights situation. The Special Rapporteur will also be presenting a report which is a prime opportunity for States to address the worsening human rights crisis in the country.
ARTICLE 19 has raised serious concern over the Iranian authorities introducing new laws to the country’s already flawed legislative framework in order to further restrict the rights to freedom of expression, information, and freedom of religion and belief, and to solidify discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. This includes additional provisions to the Islamic Penal Code which criminalise insulting “legally-recognised religions” and “Iranian ethnicities”. We are also concerned over the imminent passage of the Social Media Organisation Bill which could pass control of Iran’s Internet infrastructure into the hands of the military and potentially enable Internet shutdowns and censorship with more ease. Similarly, a new decree by Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace about curbing “disinformation online”, which will be implemented as a law, also poses worrying repercussions for the limits of expression and privacy. This deterioration of the legal framework has coincided with a rise in the use of the death penalty against political dissidents, crackdowns on human rights defenders and journalists, and other human rights violations.
In light of this situation, it is absolutely essential that States support the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and are vocal about freedom of expression concerns when engaging with his upcoming report. While we will fully support the technical resolution renewing the mandate, we will also be calling for States to consider eventually adding substantive elements to this resolution to ensure it addresses key concerns and contends with the crisis of impunity and the lack of accountability for human rights violations in the country.
At HRC46, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism will present a timely report on the human rights impact of counter-terrorism and countering (violent) extremism policies and practices on the rights of women, girls and the family.
In her previous report to the Council, the Special Rapporteur observed that the lack of precise legal definitions of “terrorism” and “extremism” allows authorities to crackdown on civil society actors engaged in dissent or political opposition, in direct contravention of the principle of legality. Furthermore, as the Special Rapporteur notes in her latest report, the widespread use of counter-terrorism measures has a specific, defined and often unseen negative impact on the human rights of women and girls and the family. Therefore, highlighting this gender perspective is incredibly important.
ARTICLE 19 urges all States to engage closely with the findings and recommendations of this report and to ensure that their own laws on counter-terrorism are not abused to impede the rights of women, girls and the family. We will also join the Special Rapporteur, alongide Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of Jurists, for a virtual event to discuss the gendered effects of counter-terrorism measures, including on women civil society activists, on 5 March.
As this discussion precedes the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy Review, which is planned to take place in New York in the next few months, it is also more important than ever for States to ensure civil society can participate freely and fully in the UN’s global counter-terrorism architecture.
Human rights defenders
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders will be presenting her first annual report at HRC46. The report focuses on the ever-pressing issue of death threats and killings of human rights defenders across the globe.
ARTICLE 19 previously submitted input for this report, where we highlighted death threats and killings of human rights defenders and journalists covering environmental issues, monitoring or reporting on protests, or undertaking investigative work and uncovering corruption. Those who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination – such as indigenous persons, women, or LGBTI persons – face disproportionate or different risks of death threats and killings. In too many cases, the authorities overlook essential information and fail to exhaust lines of enquiry during the investigations, such as links to the victims’ work or other personal motives.
At the session, we participate in the interactive dialogue on the report and urge governments across the globe to take heed of these important new recommendations, especially to ensure that authorities automatically pursue the human rights work of a human rights defender as a line of inquiry into the motivation for killings.
During HRC46, follow @article19un for live updates and use #HRC46 to join the discussion. You can also check out our full coverage of the session here.