By Paula Martins and Veronica FerrariPublished on
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The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will hold its 47th session in Geneva from 21 June to 13 July. This session will again adopt a hybrid format, combining face-to-face and online sessions, with most statements delivered virtually.
APC considers the HRC sessions an important opportunity to influence the setting up of international standards on human rights online and to raise awareness regarding violations of human rights online in specific countries. APC’s priorities at this HRC47 session include the following:
To advocate for digital inclusion and the recognition of community networks as key for meaningful access by introducing language in this regard into the HRC internet resolution.
To raise awareness about the gendered dimensions of disinformation and its consequences during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
To highlight the impact of emerging technologies on women and people living in situations of vulnerability.
To raise awareness about the situation of digital rights in Colombia in the context of protests and to call for accountability in relation to the violations of the digital rights of Palestinians.
To engage in the discussions around the resolution on civil society space, highlighting the need for access to a secure internet as a key element for the work of civil society, activists and human rights defenders.
The full programme of work and all the reports that will be presented can be accessed here.
The main Twitter hashtag for the session is #HRC47, and plenary sessions will be live streamed and archived here. We are @apc_news and we'll be tweeting under #internetrights, #humanrightsonline, #feministinternet and other thematic hashtags.
Reports related to human rights online
Disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression
The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, will present her new report focused on disinformation and its threats to human rights, democracy and development.
The Special Rapporteur acknowledges the lack of an agreed definition of disinformation, especially due to the difficulties in drawing clear lines between fact and falsehood and in establishing the absence or presence of intent to cause harm. In the report, disinformation is conceptualised as false information that is disseminated intentionally to cause serious social harm, and misinformation as the dissemination of false information unknowingly.
The contested nature of the term, its complexity and size make a global response challenging, says the report. However, while acknowledging how difficult it is to find appropriate responses to this phenomenon, the study argues that responses by states and companies have been problematic, inadequate and detrimental to human rights.
Disinformation should be seen as a human rights challenge, aggravated by an information disorder; disinformation tends to thrive where human rights are constrained, where the public information regime is not robust, and where media quality, diversity and independence are weak.
The Special Rapporteur acknowledges, as raised in APC's contribution to this report, that the detrimental impact of politically motivated disinformation has been felt on democratic institutions in many countries, chilling free speech, reducing the level of trust in the public sphere as a space for democratic deliberation, amplifying anti-democratic narratives, driving polarisation and promoting authoritarian and populist agendas.
We welcome the report’s recognition of gender disinformation and the recommendation to states and platforms to address it. Disinformation campaigns, says the report, are increasingly being used to deter women from participating in the public sphere, mixing “old ingrained sexist attitudes with the anonymity and reach of social media in an effort to destroy women’s reputations and push them out of public life.” Building on a submission by APC member Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) and cases such as the one of journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines, the report raises that women journalists together with politicians and gender advocates who speak out on feminist issues are particularly targeted by disinformation campaigns.
Gendered disinformation, says the APC contribution to this report, targets not only women, but also feminist struggles and gendered discourse. In practice, it is used to silence, to push women to self-censorship, and to restrict their civic space. The situation is even more striking from an intersectionality lens. Female political leaders and activists from racial, ethnic, religious or other minority groups are targeted far more often than their white colleagues. We welcome the report’s recommendations to companies calling for appropriate policies, remedies and mechanisms tailored from a gender perspective and design in consultation with those affected by this behaviour. States, the report recommends, should also integrate fully gendered perspectives into their policies and programmes to address disinformation. We welcome these recommendations and encourage the mandate to work on this matter and to provide advice and technical assistance to states and companies to comply with the report’s recommendations.
In terms of solutions, the report states that disinformation needs to be understood in the context of other factors, including a struggling media sector, challenged by digital transformation and competition from online platforms and, in some cases, threatened by state pressure; absence of robust public information regimes; low levels of digital and media literacy; and the frustrations and grievances of a growing number of people, fuelled by decades of economic deprivation, market failures, political disenfranchisement and social inequalities, which make some individuals more susceptible to manipulation.
Strategies to address disinformation should address these underlying factors. The Special Rapporteur proposes international human rights as an appropriate framework for addressing this phenomenon and calls for multidimensional and multistakeholder responses.
More specifically, we welcome the call in the report for a review of the business models of platforms. The report builds on APC’s and other civil society contributions in calling on companies to share more precise and meaningful information about their actions aimed at addressing disinformation. Overall, the Special Rapporteur notes that companies’ measures to tackle disinformation lack transparency and adequate due process with regard to the rights of users. The report also calls for greater transparency about the reliability and accuracy of the artificial intelligence (AI) systems deployed to identify and remove content.
Finally, the report urges states to address disinformation by enhancing the role of free, independent and diverse media, investing in media and digital literacy, empowering individuals, and rebuilding public trust.
Artificial intelligence and privacy
Joseph A. Cannataci will be presenting his last report as Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy. One of the topics of this last report is artificial intelligence and privacy. The report offers a series of data privacy guiding principles for the development and operation of AI solutions with the goal of providing a common international baseline for data protection standards regarding AI solutions.
All AI solutions, says the report, must respect the rule of law, human rights, democratic values and diversity. In the context of AI deployment, the report calls for the effective and independent functioning of a privacy and/or data protection regulatory body for oversight of dedicated legislation and human rights assessment in the planning phase of these solutions.
The report includes eight main principles that are mandatory considerations in the planning, development and implementation of AI solutions: jurisdiction; ethical and lawful basis; data fundamentals; responsibility and oversight; control; transparency and “explainability”; rights of the data subject; and safeguards.
The report states that the implementation of the recommendations will require full collaboration between governments, civil society, the private sector, the technical community and academia, and that it should be sustained in common human values, such as inclusiveness, respect, human-centeredness, human rights, international law, transparency and sustainability.
APC welcomed in the past the mandate’s objective of integrating a gender perspective into all its work and task forces dedicated to having a better understanding of privacy from a gender perspective. While the report states that the right to equal treatment must not be violated by AI, and notes how these solutions can reflect unconscious bias and might discriminate against certain individuals or groups, it would have been desirable for the report to reflect more on the differentiated impacts of AI solutions as a result of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other social and cultural hierarchies.
As APC stated in past contributions to the mandate, individuals and groups who are viewed as being situated lower in social and cultural hierarchies, or seen by society or the state as needing to be controlled, are afforded less privacy. Several reports from the 2019 edition of APC’s Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) focused on the impacts of AI from a human rights, development and social justice approach. They showed, for example, that although AI solutions claim to be neutral and objective, they have been increasingly deployed to support potentially discriminatory public policies that undermine the human rights of poor women and girls, and that facial recognition surveillance and other data-intensive systems impact differently on women and non-binary individuals.
New digital technologies and human rights
In 2019, the HRC tasked its Advisory Committee to prepare a report on new and emerging digital technologies and their impacts and challenges with regard to human rights. The Council asked the Advisory Committee to map relevant existing initiatives by the UN and to make recommendations on how human rights opportunities, challenges and gaps arising from new technologies could be addressed by the Council and its special procedures in a “holistic, inclusive and pragmatic manner.” The Advisory Committee will be presenting this report in the upcoming HRC47.
The report uses the term “new technologies” to refer to “technological innovations that transform the boundaries between virtual, physical and biological spaces.” This definition, says the report, includes new technologies and techniques for datafication such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, blockchain and cloud computing, among others.
The report emphasises the contribution of these technologies to human rights, but also acknowledges that technologies are not neutral and that they affect human rights. New technologies influence policy making and can restrict liberties, and often, says the report, they embody the values and biases of those who create them. We welcome, for example, the study raising the HRC’s attention regarding the rights of workers of digital platforms and calling for more robust frameworks on this issue.
The challenges to human rights presented in the report cover issues such as violations of privacy, cybersecurity and integrity; radicalisation, segregation and discrimination; disempowerment and inequality; mass surveillance and overreaching internet regulation; and cyberviolence. We welcome the report raising awareness around these challenges, but language could have gone further in recognising the impact of technologies on human rights, especially of vulnerable groups, building more on thematic reports and recommendations by the UN Special Procedures on issues such as online gender based violence and the impact of emerging technologies on racial inequality, and discussions in other UN spaces on cybersecurity. In this sense, we welcome the Advisory Committee calling in this report for a comprehensive and more coordinated approach by the United Nations to deal with all these complex issues.
We also welcome the report highlighting that UN human rights mechanisms would benefit from creating regular information-sharing mechanisms so that the work of key stakeholders on the issue is better coordinated, and stating that multistakeholder participation is vital in the process of building such a holistic approach. However, as the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) briefer points out, in the report there is a lack of reference to the role of civil society regarding human rights and technologies.
Freedom of assembly and association and internet shutdowns
As a follow-up to his report on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital age, submitted to the HRC at its 41st session, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association will present during this session a study of recent trends and the impact of internet shutdowns in relation to peaceful protests (as an addendum to his main report). APC has participated in regional consultations held in preparation for this report.
According to the report, shutdowns have become an entrenched practice in certain regions, especially as a means for incumbent regimes to retain power and stifle dissent. Shutdowns are lasting longer, becoming harder to detect, and targeting particular social media and messaging applications and specific localities and communities. These shutdowns have been adopted alongside other repressive tactics, including the criminalisation of journalists and human rights defenders.
The document also refers to the responsibilities of digital technology companies, affirming that a global framework is provided by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles provide guidance on how to address internet shutdowns, including the adoption of mitigation strategies and transparency measures. In keeping with these principles, companies should require that shutdown requests be made in writing and present a clear explanation of their legal basis and institutional authority to issue the request. Companies should explore all legal options for challenging requests and disclose all relevant information about shutdowns and mitigate the impact of gag orders or other non-disclosure laws.
Some of the trends highlighted include the following:
The number of governments imposing internet shutdowns during mass demonstrations continues to grow.
Shutdowns are increasing in length, scale and sophistication.
Bandwidth throttling – or deliberately reducing internet speeds – is becoming increasingly common.
Most shutdowns target applications and services used by protesters.
Shutdowns are used as pre-emptive tools against peaceful assemblies, especially in the context of elections.
Marginalised and at-risk populations are especially targeted.
In moving forward, the report highlights that states should establish a legal prohibition against internet shutdowns and provide effective remedies for victims of shutdowns. APC welcomes such recommendations. States should also develop a national action plan to ensure human rights are respected in the context of peaceful protests. As for companies, the report calls on them to scale up good business practices in addressing internet shutdowns; it also addresses investors, recommending to leverage investors’ human rights due diligence to prevent and mitigate shutdowns.
Resolutions related to human rights online
During this session, three important resolutions touching on digital rights will be discussed in Geneva.
The first is the Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, which was last adopted by consensus in 2018. In its current text, the Resolution reaffirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, and highlights that privacy online is important for the realisation of the right to freedom of expression and other rights. It includes elements concerning the responsibilities of companies; data protection and human rights; secure, confidential and anonymous communications; attacks on freedom of expression; the spread of disinformation and propaganda on the internet; advancing women's rights online; and human rights-based approaches to bridging digital divides. The Resolution condemns online attacks against women, including sexual and gender-based violence and abuse of women, including women journalists and media workers, in violation of their rights to privacy and to freedom of expression. This Resolution is led by Sweden, Brazil, Nigeria, the United States of America and Tunisia. APC expects the new text to maintain the above-mentioned key elements and to further expand on issues pertaining to access, including alternative models to commercial-led connectivity and the need to update states’ regulatory environments to enable community-based efforts to self-provide their own digital broadband infrastructure.
The second is the Resolution on new and emerging digital technologies and human rights. This Resolution is led by Denmark, South Korea, Austria, Morocco, Brazil and Singapore. The 2019 text requested the Council to facilitate multistakeholder conversations and requested the Advisory Committee to prepare a report on the possible impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights, including mapping of relevant existing initiatives by the United Nations and recommendations on how human rights opportunities, challenges and gaps arising from new and emerging digital technologies could be addressed by the HRC and its special procedures and subsidiary bodies in a holistic, inclusive and pragmatic manner. The report (see the summary above) will be presented during this session and a new Resolution should be adopted, with new outcome requests aimed at promoting the continuity of this process.
Finally, a new text of the Resolution on civil society space will be negotiated. The current text reminds states of their obligation to respect and fully protect the rights to freedom of expression and opinion and to assemble peacefully and associate freely online as well as offline. It also recognises that access to information, online and offline, is fundamentally important to civil society organisations in conducting their work effectively and meaningfully. APC expects the new text to put additional emphasis on the importance of recognising the online civic space; the need to expand connectivity and meaningful access; the impact on civil society of disruptions to access to the internet; and the importance of secure communications, including through anonymity and encryption.
Specific country situations
Violations of human rights online in Palestine
APC and 7amleh - The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement submitted a written statement ahead of HRC 47 to express our grave concern about the dramatic increase in digital rights violations of Palestinians during the 2021 Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, Palestinians in mixed cities in Israel and forcible displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Between 6 and 18 May, 7amleh documented over 500 cases of censorship of Palestinian political speech online, in the form of content takedown, account suspension and limiting features of platform services, coupled with over 40 examples of hate speech and incitement against Palestinians. This pattern of censoring Palestinian and Arabic political speech is exacerbating the human rights violations already occurring on the ground.
Human rights in the context of protests in Colombia
During the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, APC will seek to present an oral statement in partnership with Fundacion Karisma, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), ILEX - Acción Jurídica, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), IFEX and Derechos Digitales concerning the social protests in Colombia, around which there is profuse evidence of abuse and violence by public forces. In this context, the statement highlights that the Colombian state imposed restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly in the digital environment or through technological tools. The absence of internet connectivity granted by the state to traditionally marginalised communities with a strong participation in the protests adds another layer of exclusion and discrimination and poses restrictions for expressing themselves compared to other groups. Colombia has also developed technological capacity and a legal framework that allows for the restriction of access to the internet and the blocking of access to content available about the protests. Protest is being criminalised, including the organisation of protests and/or calls for participation of demonstrators through digital platforms.
Other relevant reports and debates during HRC 47
The HRC Advisory Committee is also presenting a report on current levels of representation of women in human rights organs and mechanisms. According to the report, for some time, women have been underrepresented in not only human rights organs and mechanisms, but also in the UN system in general. The composition of UN human rights bodies and mechanisms shows a serious lack of gender parity. As the statistics in the report’s annex demonstrate, while gender parity has been reached in some UN bodies (in some cases very recently), women generally remain underrepresented in treaty bodies, among special procedure mandate holders, and in the Advisory Committee. Moreover, the figures show that women’s representation is largely concentrated in bodies or mandates specifically dealing with issues related to women or children.
The Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will release the report “Gender, sexual orientation and gender identity”.
Each June, the HRC holds the annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women. In 2020, the discussion was divided into two panels: the first focused on accountability for women and girls in humanitarian settings and the second on COVID-19 and women’s rights. The report on last year's full-day discussion is available here. This year, the discussion will be divided into two panels once again. The first will focus on violence against women and girls with disabilities, and the second on gender-equal socioeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises taking stock of the first decade of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights will be presented during this session.
The HRC requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a thematic report on how artificial intelligence and machine learning, without proper safeguards, could affect the right to privacy. The submission of this report has been postponed to a future session of Council.
Special Procedures mandates and appointments
New mandate holders will be appointed during this session as Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy and Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. The list of eligible candidates for these mandates can be found here.
HRC's 47th session is taking place between 21 June and 15 July. If you are a journalist, access our press section to stay updated on the latest news and other resources.
For interviews, coverage and other press inquiries, contact Leila Nachawati, APC’s media outreach lead: email@example.com