Human rights online at the Human Rights Council 44th session

By APC 29 June 2020

The 44th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC44) will be taking place over the next four weeks (30 June to 20 July) in Geneva. The internet and new technologies will be in focus this session, with a number of resolutions, panels and reports touching on the online dimension of human rights. The HRC is an important platform for APC to raise concerns about threats and challenges in the digital context, to highlight opportunities, and to address specific country situations.

Because this session will take place in the evolving context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will adopt a hybrid format, combining face-to-face and online sessions. This poses challenges for civil society participation. The lack of information and clarity – about modalities of engagement, time zones and accessibility, for example – results in a space that is contracting for already excluded groups, mainly from the global South.

As pointed out in a recent joint civil society statement, states of emergency and other exceptional measures adopted to fight the COVID-19 health crisis should not be used as reasons to restrict civil society access and opportunities for participation within UN spaces. The HRC should remain an accessible forum, especially at this particular time, when some human rights violations are aggravated by the context of the pandemic.

Human rights online at HRC44: Key priorities for APC

APC’s priorities at this HRC session include the following:

  • To raise awareness about the implications that responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have for the exercise of human rights online, particularly in contexts of extreme crackdowns on dissent and stifling of protest.

  • To ensure that the concerns of communities who experience intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression are reflected in the proceedings, particularly as they relate to participation and inclusion.

  • To highlight threats that information and communications technologies (ICTs), including artificial intelligence (AI), pose to the rights to non-discrimination and racial equality, as well as to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

The implications of COVID-19 for human rights online

The current pandemic has raised challenges for human rights and, in some cases, responses by governments have revealed fault lines that challenge international human rights law. Several reports and statements that will be presented during the 44th session address the current global health crisis.

The High Commissioner, for example, will present an oral update on the human rights impact of COVID-19, as requested by the Council in May 2020. The report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association warns about the adoption of emergency laws and measures to rule by decree, including the adoption of measures seeking to cement control and crack down on oppositional figures rather than ensuring public health. The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression dedicated a full report to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on freedom of expression. In it, he states that efforts to combat the pandemic are in some cases failing to meet the standards of legality, necessity and proportionality.

In a written statement submitted for this session, APC stresses that while these are extraordinary times, such exceptionality should not be the basis for human violations in online spaces. States’ responses to the crisis should be proportionate and avoid curtailing human rights. APC identifies several key, interrelated issues that require attention by governments, the private sector and civil society: internet access and exacerbated digital divides; privacy and surveillance; attacks on journalists and human rights defenders; misinformation and content moderation; and online gender-based violence, hate speech and discrimination.

In the submission, we urge the Human Rights Council to work with states to ensure that measures to respond to the current health crisis are adequate, necessary and proportionate. In particular, we:

  • Encourage the Council to work with states to guarantee that the internet is a means for secure and private communications. Appropriate measures should be taken to counter online gender-based violence, intimidation, threats and attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, but also against those that express critical voices online in relation to how governments have been handling the health crisis.

  • Encourage governments to ensure that internet access is maintained at all times. Internet shutdowns or other restrictions to internet access should not be considered as a response to the crisis under any circumstances. Governments should also work towards ensuring meaningful internet access by implementing solutions such as free public access facilities and hotspots and including subsidised data packages and laptops as part of measures related to social protection strategies for low-income populations.

  • Call on governments to refrain from introducing measures that increase surveillance of citizens. Any collection of personal data – for example, through tracking applications – must be necessary and proportionate and must be justified by legitimate public health objectives.

The impact of digital technologies on freedom of assembly and association online

In her annual report to the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights focuses on the impact of new technologies on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of assemblies, including peaceful protests.

The report addresses how ICTs enable people to be more informed and empowered, and allow traditionally marginalised groups to access information more readily and to better enjoy their right of peaceful assembly, including civil rights and racial equality activists; environmental and land rights defenders; women human rights defenders; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex activists; people living in remote areas; and indigenous peoples.

As APC highlighted in our contribution to this report, human rights in the context of assemblies and peaceful protests have two dimensions: one in which the exercise of these rights is carried out online, such as through online campaigns, ranging from awareness raising to working groups, petitions and protests; and one in which technology is used to support, enable, enhance and facilitate the rights of assembly and peaceful protests online and offline.

Among others, APC welcomes the High Commissioner’s recommendation regarding the establishment of a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in the context of peaceful assemblies, at least until the authorities responsible can demonstrate compliance with privacy and data protection standards as well as the absence of significant accuracy issues and discriminatory impacts.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, will participate in a panel discussion on 8 July from 09:00 to 11:00 (Geneva time) on the human rights impacts of new digital technologies. María Paz Canales, the director of APC member Derechos Digitales, will also take part in this panel. [1]

Ten years of the freedom of assembly and association mandate

The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Voule, will present during the HRC 44th session a report reflecting on the ten years of the mandate and looking at the issues that a future agenda for the mandate should focus on.

The document points to the need for accelerating and deepening efforts to eradicate the discrimination that women face in enjoying their rights to peaceful assembly and association. As APC noted in our submission to the report, ICTs and online spaces have also become a significant medium through which gender-based violence (GBV) is perpetrated. Online GBV – such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying, harassment and misogynist speech – affects the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association of women and people of diverse genders and sexualities, since it frequently leads them to withdraw from online spaces.

Racial discrimination and inequality and new information technologies

On 16 July, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance will present a thematic report on new information technologies, racial equality, and non-discrimination. The report focuses on how digital technologies, including AI, pose threats to these rights. APC contributed to the Special Rapporteur’s report through written input based on the 2019 edition of the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) report.

In our submission, APC highlights that to understand the impact of AI systems, it is crucial to understand the discriminatory and unfair world from which these systems arise, and the underlying structural and historical legacy in which these systems are applied. AI, often seen as “neutral” or “objective”, further ingrains discriminatory and abusive practices. Moreover, these systems are implemented without transparency, accountability or community participation in the decisions around their implementation or in the evaluation and oversight of their impacts, further limiting the detection and remedy of undesired outcomes.

APC’s submission sheds light on the multiple and varied structural forces that drive respective patterns of racial discrimination and exclusion in the application of AI, including examples related to the deployment of facial recognition and other data-intensive systems, predictive policing, the increased use of AI in anti-poverty programmes, and how AI could be used to support potentially discriminatory public policies that undermine human rights of women and girls.

Online gender-based violence

During each June-July session, the HRC holds an annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women. This year, the second panel of the 2020 annual discussion will focus on the impact of COVID-19 on women’s rights. The panel will take place on 14 July, and will address the increase in domestic violence during this time of lockdowns and limited mobility. APC will participate in dialogues during the panel discussions, focusing on the online manifestations of this phenomenon. [2] As stressed in an open letter from the APC Women’s Rights Programme, gender diverse, trans, lesbian, gay and queer people are more at risk when their freedom of movement is curtailed and they have to live in proximity to abusive and controlling families or communities.

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences is presenting a report on gender-based violence against women journalists. The report dedicates special attention to online harassment and abuse experienced by women journalists and situates it in a broader context of sexism in society. The Special Rapporteur also notes how online harassment can lead to self-censorship.

As a pioneer organisation working for the understanding of the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence that women and people of diverse genders and sexualities experience within online spaces, APC welcomes the mandate reaffirming the recommendations made in previous reports which stress that women’s rights that are protected offline should be protected online, and the specific recommendations directed to internet intermediaries on the need for greater cooperation in the development of responses to online gender-based violence against women journalists.

Resolutions and other relevant documents and sessions
  • A new mandate holder will be appointed during this session as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

  • A resolution on freedom of opinion and expression will be presented by Canada, Namibia, Brazil, Fiji, the Netherlands and Sweden.

  • The bi-annual resolution on the internet has been postponed to next year.

  • The Council will hear an oral update by the HRC Advisory Committee on new and emerging digital technologies (to be presented during a panel discussion on the same topic).

  • The Council will consider the report of the High Commissioner on progress made in improving civil society engagement with international and regional organisations.

The full programme of work for the session and all the reports that will be presented can be accessed here.

Follow the HRC 44th session online

The Twitter hashtag for the session is #HRC44, and plenary sessions will be live streamed and archived here.

Notes:

[1] Among Derechos Digitales’ several contributions to this debate, see for example its study on facial recognition in Latin America: https://www.derechosdigitales.org/wp-content/uploads/glimpse-cap-rec-facial.pdf

[2] See, for example: https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/brief-online-and-ict-facilitated-violence-against-women-and-girls-during-covid-19-en.pdf?la=en&vs=2519 and https://www.apc.org/en/news/kictanet-online-gender-based-violence-times-covid-19



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