UN: Human Rights Council Session 53 concludes in Geneva

UN: Human Rights Council Session 53 concludes in Geneva - Civic Space

Room XX of the UN Human Rights Council

On 14 July 2023, the UN Human Rights Council concluded its 53rd Session in Geneva. Over four weeks, States have held debates and passed resolutions on a wide range of human rights issues, contributing to an elaborate set of international standards for the right to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 worked to promote the right to freedom of expression and interrelated rights throughout the session, including taking part in negotiations on a resolution on new and emerging digital technologies. We also presented a number of statements, including on sustainable development, digital, media and information literacy, and repression of protests, as well as on country-specific concerns in Belarus, Iran and Myanmar.

We closely followed and responded to a new regressive resolution on countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, which ultimately aims to reintroduce language on the defamation of religions and risks undermining the consensual, positive action plan to combat religious intolerance achieved in the landmark Resolution 16/18. 

We highlight the details of the resolutions we followed closely at the session below. 

New and emerging digital technologies

Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Morocco, Singapore and South Korea led the adoption of a substantive resolution on new and emerging digital technologies and human rights, with a focus on artificial intelligence. We welcome the resolution, now in its second iteration, which aims to ensure a comprehensive, holistic, and inclusive approach to addressing the challenges and impacts of new technologies on human rights.

This new resolution at its core highlights the importance of respecting, protecting and promoting human rights throughout the lifecycle of artificial intelligence systems. Crucially, in line with our advocacy calls, it stresses that certain applications of artificial intelligence ‘present an unacceptable risk to human rights’. We have also found that certain technologies, such as emotion recognition technologies, carry enormous potential for harm and can never meet the narrowly-defined tests of necessity, proportionality, legality, and legitimacy. We urge States and private companies to put this language into action by ensuring human rights due diligence during the conception, design, use, development, and further deployment of new technologies, including banning those that cannot be operated in compliance with international human rights law.

We also welcome that the resolution mandates an enhanced role of the Office of the High Commissioner in providing expertise on the human rights implications of new and emerging digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, to other UN bodies, mechanisms, and processes. We think bolstering existing expertise will be vital in ensuring a consistent human rights-first approach to a growing number of UN initiatives relevant to this topic. We call on the Council to ensure that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has the capacity and resources it needs to fulfil this role. 

Religious hatred

Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), responding to instances of the burning of the Holy Qur’an in recent weeks, tabled an urgent debate and regressive resolution titled ‘countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’. We believe that this resolution is fundamentally problematic and regret that it was adopted with 28 votes in favour and only 12 votes against adoption, with 7 abstentions. The initiative was announced well into the third week of the session, leaving little opportunity for meaningful consultation and negotiations amongst delegations and civil society. Nonetheless, we actively took part in negotiations, issued a joint letter to delegations, and made a joint statement during the urgent debate.

We are committed to countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. However, this resolution is ultimately not about the protection of individuals, but the protection of religious books and symbols that do not enjoy protection under international human rights law. While the burning of holy books is considered disrespectful and offensive by many, this is not an act of incitement in and of itself. These acts should only be challenged through open space for dialogue, debate, and dissent – not criminalisation of the defamation of religions or similar restrictions. These prohibitions fuel division and religious intolerance by shutting down interfaith dialogue, and can facilitate and legitimise horrifying human rights violations against religious minorities. 

In 2011, the Council adopted Resolution 16/18, a landmark achievement that set out a consensual action plan for addressing religious intolerance. This resolution replaced divisive calls to combat defamation of religions in favour of a positive agenda driven by the understanding that the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and equality are mutually dependent and reinforcing. By invoking language on the defamation of religions, this new resolution critically undermines this consensual action plan and puts over a decade of progress in jeopardy. 

We urge States to tackle religious intolerance through reaffirming their commitment to Resolution 16/18 and other consensual action plans, such as the Rabat Plan of Action, and to strongly resist any further attempts to invoke language on the defamation of religions. We remind States that blasphemy laws are fundamentally out of line with international standards for the right to freedom of expression and call for the repeal of such legislation. We stand ready to continue our work with all States, including those within OIC, to tackle the rise of hate against persons on the basis of their religion or belief.