By Verónica Ferrari and Paula MartinsPublished on
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The Human Rights Council 50th session (HRC 50) wrapped up last week. As we noted in our pre-session briefing, APC considers the Council as a key mechanism for advancing human rights online and we engage with this mechanism to influence international standards on human rights in digital contexts and to raise awareness regarding violations of human rights online in different parts of the world. This overview includes some highlights of key outcomes relating to human rights online and from APC’s engagement at this past session.
All resolutions adopted at HRC 50 can be accessed here.
Freedom of opinion and expression
A key outcome of HRC 50 was the adoption of a new resolution on freedom of opinion and expression (50/15) and its focus on the importance of digital and information literacy for the enjoyment of this right.
The text recognises the challenges for exercising freedom of expression and opinion in digital contexts, including the spread of disinformation and the many forms of digital divides that remain between and within countries and regions, with particular focus on the digital gender divide. We welcome that the resolution recommends that states provide support for expanding infrastructure, technological cooperation and capacity building, so as to ensure the accessibility, affordability and availability of the internet in order to bridge digital divides. In the future, and as we stressed in our inputs to this resolution, we encourage the Council to recognise the value of community-led models for improving connectivity and bridging the digital divides.
The text also builds on previous resolutions and expresses concern at all forms of discrimination and violence against women, both online and offline, that prevent them from fully enjoying their human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also includes a special mention of violence against women journalists and human rights defenders.
In the future, this resolution could provide more specific guidance to states on how to adopt and implement a human rights-based approach to bridging the gender digital divide, addressing the fact that it is both a consequence and cause of violations of women’s human rights and that the barriers faced by women in meaningfully using the internet are exacerbated by offline inequalities.
The resolution calls for an online environment that is conducive to user safety and engagement by all, and addresses digital divides, especially for all women and girls, and individuals in vulnerable situations and/or belonging to marginalised groups. It would be desirable that future text iterations address more specifically that factors such as race, ethnicity, religion or belief, health, status, age, class, caste and sexual orientation and gender identity also prevent women from using and benefiting from digital technologies.
Importantly, the resolution acknowledges the importance of tools such as encryption and anonymity. It encourages companies to work towards enabling these solutions and calls on states not to interfere with the use of such technical solutions and to enact policies that protect the privacy of individuals’ digital communications.
We commend the efforts by the core group to advance international standards and consensus around the protection of freedom of expression online and the role of digital literacy for this, and urge all states to uphold the commitments contained in this resolution.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association
HRC 50 also concluded with the adoption of a new resolution on freedom of peaceful assembly and association (50/17).
We welcome that the 2022 resolution recognises the importance of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association for advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including gender equality and climate action goals.
The text reiterates the important role of digital technologies in enabling and facilitating the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and stresses the importance for all states to promote, free, open, interoperable, reliable and secure use of and access to the internet, by – among other measures – refraining from undue restrictions, such as internet shutdowns, arbitrary or unlawful surveillance or online censorship. We particularly welcome the resolution raising attention to the fact that persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities are in disproportionately vulnerable situations when it comes to exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
This year’s resolution also acknowleges that the pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated existing challenges, both online and offline, for civil society, including human rights defenders, and brings attention to the attacks against these groups, including smear campaigns and use of hate speech.
The resolution renews the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and encourages relevant stakeholders, including tech companies, to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur to enable him or her to fulfill the mandate.
The promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests
The text of this resolution (50/21) builds on past resolutions and restates that protections guaranteed by international human rights law also apply to the online exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly and association.
We value that this new resolution expresses concerns about disinformation, misuse of new technologies and undue restrictions preventing access to information, including internet shutdowns at key political moments, recognising the negative impact of these measures on the ability to organise and conduct assemblies.
The resolution notes that the possibility of having access to and using technologies securely and privately is important for the organisation and conduct of assemblies, and it includes important commitments regarding encryption and anonymity.
As expressed in the joint end-of-session statement, together with other organisations, we regret that language urging a landmark moratorium on surveillance technology that could be used to violate human rights during protests was lost during negotiations.
During this session, APC submitted statements related to disinformation and freedom of expression. We also raised awareness about the situation of human rights online in Tunisia.
Here we present some highlights.
Online gendered attacks against women judges in Tunisia
In the context of the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, we welcomed the most recent report that addresses the proliferation of smear and defamation campaigns against legal professionals on social media, particularly the campaigns allegedly carried out by state authorities.
We called attention to the situation in Tunisia, where women judges are the target of online gendered attacks. During a recent speech, the Tunisian president recited charges – including adultery – under which he dismissed 57 judges. Following the president’s speech, social media accounts that support the government published documents leaked from the investigation files of two of the dismissed women judges. These documents included medical, police and National Guard reports about the judges committing adultery, violating their rights to privacy and integrity, among others.
In the statement submitted, we reiterated how online gendered attacks like this one often have the goal of delegitimising women’s work and reputation and deterring them from participating in public life.
We encouraged the Special Rapporteur to address this issue in future reports and to work with other mandates to deepen the understanding of disinformation campaigns toward women judges and lawyers.
Online gender-based violence poses serious threat to media freedom
APC submitted a statement for the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, supporting the commitment of the mandate to applying a gender lens throughout the work.
In our statement, we reiterated our concerns regarding gender-based violence facilitated by technology, which targets in particular women and gender-non-conforming individuals, and, in particular, women working as journalists and human rights defenders and active in politics. These attacks, as stated in the Special Rapporteur’s most recent report, are one of the most serious contemporary threats to their safety, to media freedom and to gender equality more broadly.
We also welcomed the mandate’s call on international treaty bodies to provide clear guidelines defining online violence, so that the right to freedom of expression is not compromised in the efforts to safeguard women from online violence.
High-level discussion on disinformation
APC submitted an oral statement in the context of the high-level discussion on countering the negative impact of disinformation on human rights. In our contribution, we reiterate our understanding of disinformation as a multifaceted, global and complex issue that can rather be understood as a symptom of much broader information disorders and deeper structural problems.
We drew attention to the fact that increasingly, disinformation campaigns particularly target women and gender-diverse individuals, marginalised groups, and human rights and environmental activists. Of particular concern for APC are the disinformation campaigns that target feminist struggles and gendered discourse in an attempt to silence women, push them to self-censorship, and restrict their civic space.
For APC, gendered disinformation should be considered as a different phenomenon, separate from online gender-based violence and from disinformation more broadly, since it requires specific monitoring and specific solutions. And we reiterated our call for research on community-based responses to disinformation, especially those focusing on community narratives and counter-discourse.
Other relevant highlights from HRC 50
Renewal of the Independent Expert on SOGI
In a critical vote (with 23 states in favour, 17 voting against and seven abstaining), the Council adopted a resolution (50/10) to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) for three more years. We welcome the renewal of this mandate, since it sends a clear message that violence and discrimination against people of diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities cannot be tolerated.
Created in 2016, and renewed for the first time in 2019, the mandate of the Independent Expert has been supported by a growing number of states from all regions. The resolution to create and renew the mandate was presented by a core group of seven Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay – and was co-sponsored by 60 countries from all regions.
Prior to this decision, we joined 1,116 groups in the call to renew this mandate to reaffirm that specific, sustained and systematic attention continues to be crucial to address human rights violations against people of diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities and ensure that LGBT people are in fact free and equal in dignity and rights.
Other APC resources from HRC 50
APC published a pre-session briefing on human rights and digital technologies at the Human Rights Council 50th session, where it outlined its priorities for this session: gender-based violence online, in particular the issue of gendered disinformation and violence against women journalists; freedom of expression and association; and the human rights impact of the tech sector.
APC joined an end-of-session statement in which, together with other groups and organisations, we called attention to the essential role of civil society in defending human rights. Among other things, the statement urged states and the Council to protect and promote civil society space.