ARTICLE 19 delivered the following oral statement to the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 22 September 2023.
ARTICLE 19 appreciates and supports ongoing efforts of the Human Rights Council to address the gaps in the interpretation of the existing international standards on freedom of expression.
The ongoing brutal war waged by Russia against Ukraine is an eloquent reminder of one serious gap in existing protection of freedom of expression – namely, States’ obligations under Article 20 para 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that prohibits propaganda for war. There is a huge body of evidence that the Russian aggression against Ukraine has been accompanied by diverse methods of war propaganda that spurred and maintains popular support for the invasion and the war, in Russia and beyond.
The example of Russia is however just one of many examples of how propaganda for war is instrumental in instigating armed conflict and is harmful speech in itself. It also shows that propaganda for war can serve as a precursor to some of the gravest violations of international law: incitement to commit genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity globally. Impunity enjoyed by current war propagandists can fuel other propaganda campaigns in the future, heightening the danger if accountability cannot be sought effectively through international remedies.
Additionally, the problem of propaganda for war is given little thought in policy discussions surrounding major digital platforms that are also generally ill-equipped to address expressions that may constitute propaganda for war.
By its very nature, propaganda for war is a freedom of expression issue. The concept overlaps with other aspects of freedom of expression, including incitement to violence and other freedom of expression restrictions under international human rights law.
As an international free speech organisation, we are concerned that there is a lack of authoritative guidance on the practical application of prohibitions of propaganda for war. This is counter-productive both for developing a freedom of expression rooted approach to hold propagandists to account and for ensuring accountability for propaganda for war.
We believe that the Human Rights Council has a crucial role in filling this gap and filling it now.
Therefore, we urge the Human Rights Council to task the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to act. Ideally, this should be done mandating the OHCHR to replicate a similar consultative process – the process of interpretation of Article 20 para 2 of the ICCPR which led to the adoption of the Rabat Plan of Action.
Such guidance would also ensure that the measures to tame propaganda for war would not produce a chilling effect that will prevent and discourage media work, including reporting on armed conflict, and an unhindered debate on issues of public interest. States and the private sector should receive informative and practicable guidelines on their obligations in this area.