An internet rights agenda for the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Photo: UN Women, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

By APC 20 August 2018

On 10 August, Michelle Bachelet was confirmed as the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the highest-ranking official in the UN system on human rights. Her voice carries significant weight in calling out and addressing human rights violations and advancing norms, both in the UN and for broader public opinion. APC sees great value in the role of the High Commissioner, who has the ability to rise above the politicised environment that often shapes UN spaces and be a fearless and relentless champion of human rights.

The outgoing High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein chose not to pursue a second term in the office, voicing concern that in the current geopolitical context, staying on "might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of [his] voice.” Zeid was an outspoken critic of human rights abuses regardless of where they occurred, recently expressing outrage at the United States and other world powers, which he criticised for retreating from their historical commitment to human rights. During his mandate, Zeid also condemned and called for investigations into attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers who used the internet to exercise their freedom of expression. For example, in response to the murder of blogger and human rights activist Yameen Rashid from the Maldives, Zeid called for an immediate investigation and for the government to ensure the safety of dissidents. He also weighed in on critical internet-related policy issues, taking a strong stand in favour of encryption and its importance for the exercise of fundamental human rights in the Apple-FBI case. Under Zeid's leadership, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued important substantive reports on internet rights issues, such as its 2017 report on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective and its recent report on the the right to privacy in the digital age.

Previous High Commissioners have each brought their own style to the role. Navi Pillay, the first (and only) High Commissioner for Human Rights from Africa, brought to the position her capacity as an African, a South African, and a campaigner for social justice and human rights in her home country. Bachelet, a former president of Chile and former executive director of UN Women, also brings valuable political and personal experience to the position which can enrich how she performs in this role, especially her track record in working for women's human rights.

Bachelet is coming to the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights at a critical time, when human rights are under constant attack, persistent challenges remain, and new threats are emerging. Authoritarian regimes, the weakening of institutions, and growing disregard for due process pose significant barriers to the enjoyment of human rights all over the globe. What appears to be less and less respect for tolerance of different views and perspectives and shrinking space for civil society also contribute to a hostile environment for human rights. The withdrawal of the United States from the Human Rights Council, however shortsighted and misguided, can be seen as a shifting of attitudes and a symptom of the growing acceptability of retreating from human rights norms in parts of the world where this was not expected.

As an organisation and network committed to advancing human rights and social justice through information and communications technologies (ICTs), we urge the new High Commissioner to pay close attention to the ways that the internet and digital technologies impact human rights. Already the internet has made contributions to advancing freedom and the exercise of rights; however, it is increasingly being restricted in ways that mirror and extend violations of rights offline. Digital technologies have also given rise to new types of human rights violations that warrant careful attention and response. With this in mind, the APC community has developed a list of priorities for the High Commissioner for her consideration when beginning her four-year term on 1 September:

  • Ensure that the internet remains free, open, secure and rights-respecting, including by

    • Responding to all forms of online censorship and speech restrictions that are incompatible with international human right standards, such as censorship used to stifle political, religious and cultural expression, and in particular internet shutdowns, which are often imposed during elections or in other contexts where there are already heightened tensions as people do not have faith in elections being free and fair.

    • Working with states and companies to develop legal frameworks and private sector regulations that align with respect for the right to privacy. In particular, encourage them to consider the impact on the exercise of the right to privacy of the implementation of public policies that consider the use of biometric systems or surveillance technologies of any kind, for public safety or other regulatory purposes (e.g. internet-of-things implementation, smart cities, data-driven policies).

  • Promote a rights-based approach to internet access that allows meaningful exercise of civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. This includes supporting states with the development of regulatory frameworks that allow for different ways to provide internet connectivity that ensure autonomy and self-management of infrastructure and content by local communities. Fostering education and enabling cultural identities online is particularly important in this regard.

  • Push back against securitisation of internet policy and reinforce the fact that security online and offline requires respect for human rights.

  • Advocate for availability and use of encryption and anonymity-enhancing tools for everyone, especially for human rights defenders and the most vulnerable in society.

  • Stand up for women's rights in the digital age by continuing the OHCHR's work on the gender digital divide, online gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and impact of emerging technology on gender equality.

  • Defend the right of LGBTIQ persons to exercise their human rights through ICTs, in particular the rights to life, bodily and mental integrity, health, privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the right of everyone to access and use ICTs without violence, discrimination or other harm based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

  • Proactively engage in discussions around the development of norms around emerging technologies, such as algorithms, automated decision making, and the collection, storage, processing and use of big data, to avoid the reinforcing and expansion of discrimination and human rights violations.

  • Stand up for the inclusion of civil society voices in spaces and processes at all levels in the face of shrinking civic space, online and offline. At the national, regional and global level, civil society is being shut out of processes that impact their lives, and sometimes risk their lives in trying to participate in such processes. The High Commissioner should be a champion of civil society voices and speak out against reprisals against human rights defenders.

  • Contribute to the building of a stronger and sustainable institutional ecosystem for human rights by working with existing mechanisms, such as national human rights institutions, but also by actively reaching out to other actors, like telecom regulators, industry associations and others that in the digital age need to consciously consider and integrate the human rights impacts of their decisions. This includes working with states and technology companies to explore frameworks to support companies in fulfilling their obligations in the provision of technology solutions according the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

  • Look at the UN's own use of digital technologies and those it promotes, including its communication platforms, use of data and identity systems, to ensure that human rights standards are met.

  • Work with civil society groups and experts to address the issues listed above.



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