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The 31st session of the Human Rights Council is taking place from 29 February to 25 March in Geneva. Internet rights will be discussed in the context of children’s rights and child sexual exploitation and information and communication technologies, management of peaceful assembly, preventing and countering violent extremism online, and cultural rights and digital preservation. This session will also see the first report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy [not available at time of publishing]. Concerns relating to specific governments’ records on internet rights will be raised in the adoption of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) reports for Myanmar, Nauru, Nepal, Oman and Rwanda, who received recommendations regarding freedom of expression online, internet access, and attacks on journalists.

The Twitter hashtag for the session is #HRC31, and plenary sessions will be live streamed and archived at this link.

Reports from this session referencing internet (in chronological order)

In this thematic report, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders focuses on good practices in the protection of human rights defenders. Conceptualising protection practices at the national, regional and international level, the Special Rapporteur describes a holistic approach to safety that includes digital security. The Special Rapporteur notes that many defenders do not realise the extent to which they may be exposed to breaches in their privacy and to digital surveillance. The report goes on to describe how digital security trainers have helped defenders to understand their specific needs and problems, and employ a number of tools, tactics and strategies to protect themselves from digital threats, surveillance and online violence. One-on-one support is particularly valuable to defenders.

Outlining protection initiatives, the Special Rapporteur explores the impact of practices that strengthen the resources and capacities of defenders, practices that foster an enabling environment for the defence of rights, and the regional and international practices that support the protection of defenders at the local and national levels.

This session Norway will present a resolution on human rights defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders presented his report on 3 March (15-18h CET).

  • Children’s rights and the internet (multiple reports)

This session includes a specific focus on the rights of children and young people, with an annual full-day discussion on 6 March, and new reports that discuss the impact of the internet on children’s rights.

A report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Information and communications technology and child sexual exploitation describes how information and communications technologies (ICTs) are an integral component of everyday life for children, providing new opportunities for informal and formal education, creativity, social interaction and civic participation. The report highlights the role of the internet for children to exercise their fundamental human rights, including the right to receive and impart information and to express opinions.

Detailing various forms of sexual exploitation online, the OHCHR report makes particular note of situations in which children engage in conversation in apparently private settings, and may be persuaded to engage in sexual activity in front of a webcam, or send sexualised photos. These images may be distributed widely, and children are often subjected to threats if they refuse to produce similar material or pay money.

As a caveat to the discussion of risks, the report recalls that online risks do not necessarily translate into actual harm to children. “Rather than curtailing children’s natural curiosity and sense of innovation for fear of encountering risks online, efforts should be made to capitalize on their resourcefulness and to strengthen their resilience while exploring the potential of the Internet.”

The report notes that blocking and filtering lists are important mechanisms to combat child sexual abuse and exploitation online, by preventing such content from being accessed. Citing former Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue, the report notes that blocking and filtering do not in and of themselves constitute censorship or a violation of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; however, child protection concerns have been used as a cover for inappropriate or disproportionate blocking and filtering on issues such as sexual and reproductive health, sexuality, politics and advocacy.

The OHCHR report asserts that “States should establish clear rules to prevent filtering and blocking systems from being used to process anything other than child sexual abuse material. Blocking lists and filtering should have a clear legal basis, sufficient transparency and effective safeguards against misuse, including judicial oversight. All citizens, and especially children, should have the right to know about any restrictions that are in place, and have the basis for them explained.”

At the national level, the report calls for a digital agenda for children integrated into a comprehensive, coordinated and well-resourced policy framework to prevent and address all forms of violence against children. The report notes the importance of multistakeholder engagement to provide adequate protection for children, acknowledging the transnational nature of the internet, the rapidly evolving environment, and challenges in detection, investigation, victim identification and enforcement.

The annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children includes specific information and recommendations on ICTs maximising children’s potential and protecting children from online violence, including sexual exploitation. The report describes how online violence is often associated with incidents of abuse generated elsewhere, and can become the entry to point to “an endless maze of mirrors that multiply its impact.”

Noting that cyber bullying was addressed in General Assembly resolution 69/158, the report describes cyber bullying as a serious manifestation of online violence, which can be associated with different forms of sexual abuse. The report goes on to describe how certain groups are disproportionately exposed to the risks of cyber bullying, including children with disabilities and young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The report proposes various approaches to prevent and respond to cyber bullying, including introducing new offences specific to cyber bullying, such as the disclosure of intimate images without consent; developing new remedies for victims to initiate civil proceedings; and the establishment of a dedicated body with a mandate to tackle cyber bullying. Education and empowerment of children, parents and schools is also among the recommendations.

In the Special Rapporteur’s report to this session on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, she notes scarce and conflicting information about online offenders, making recommendations to establish and extend prevention programmes offline and online, and to conduct research on offenders, with a particular focus on online offenders.

The annual resolution on the rights of the child will focus on the online sexual exploitation of children.

The annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child will take place on 7 March (9-12h; 15-18h CET).

The report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief focuses on freedom of religion and freedom of expression. The Special Rapporteur rejects the conflict between the two fundamental rights and instead highlights their positive interrelatedness and positive reinforcement. The report calls on states to repeal blasphemy laws and to develop comprehensive policies in collaboration with relevant stakeholders to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief. It also calls for communicative counter-strategies, including the development of frank public discourse, facilitated by free and independent broadcast, print and online media, a broad range of civil society organisations and other stakeholders.

Reporting on his mission to Bangladesh, the Special Rapporteur describes the risks facing online activists expressing critical views, including the killing of online activists. The report describes statements by government representatives calling on critical freethinkers not to “cross the limits” and reports that police agencies bluntly informed some of those people that they could not effectively protect them. The Special Rapporteur calls on the Government of Bangladesh to meticulously avoid ambiguities that could be perceived as putting the blame partially on the victims of such violence.

The report specifically mentions restrictive laws, such as Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which threatens draconian sanctions for vaguely defined defamation offences, as having created an atmosphere of legal insecurity, in which people are afraid to participate in public debates on sensitive issues, including religious issues. It cites arrests of certain members of human rights organisations that have long existed in Bangladesh, using the Information and Communication Technology Act, as having added to the perception of a rapidly shrinking space for frank public discourse.

The Special Rapporteur recommends that the government should repeal restrictive legislation, such as the Information and Communication Technology Act, that prevents civil society activists from voicing their criticism and concerns without fear of sanctions.

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief will present his report on 9 March (9-12h CET). The Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy will also present his report at this time.

In a joint special project, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions have developed a report on the proper management of assemblies. In discussing the proper management of assemblies, the report recognises that human rights protections, including for freedom of assembly, may apply to interactions taking place online. The report notes the importance of secure and private use of communication technologies to organise and conduct assemblies. It also states that restrictions to online access or expression must be necessary and proportionate and applied by a body independent of any political, commercial or other unwarranted influences, and there should be adequate safeguards against abuse. The report further states that impeding the organisation or publicising of an assembly online, including through blocking communications, rarely satisfies these requirements.

The joint report recognises that the appropriate use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement personnel in the context of assemblies could assist the work of internal investigations or civilian oversight mechanisms. Such technology is in its infancy, and delicate balancing of potential intrusions into privacy should be considered, but at this stage there seems to be potential to promote accountability, where adequate safeguards are in place. It recommends that states consider the potential of ICTs, such as body-worn cameras, in contributing towards accountability for violations by law enforcement personnel in the context of assemblies.

The report also addresses the role of the private sector, noting that business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights, including in the context of assemblies. This requires that businesses avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address adverse human rights impacts in which they are involved. In this context, the report specifically identifies equipment or surveillance technologies which are used in the policing of assemblies. It recommends that effective controls be established at national and international levels prohibiting the trade in policing and crowd-control equipment, including surveillance technology, where a serious risk exists that they could, in the context of assemblies, facilitate unlawful killings, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or other human rights violations or abuses.

This session Switzerland, Turkey and Costa Rica will table a resolution on “human rights in the context of peaceful protests”

The Special Rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions will present their report on 9 March (12-15h CET).

The first report of the new Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights reflects on the work undertaken by the previous mandate holder and highlights priority areas in which she believes further advances should be made, including particular consideration to the relationship between culture and new technology. Recognising the need to reach out to young people as part of her commitment to popularise the message of cultural rights, the Special Rapporteur recognises that youth are “trailblazers with new technology, virtual worlds and digital platforms, which are forging new cultural environments and forms.”

The rapporteur also recognises the role of new media to magnify the impact of initial destruction of cultural heritage, and to enhance the means to mitigate the damage caused, such as through digitisation. In the conclusions to the report, the Special Rapporteur recommends preparations for threats to cultural heritage, including by documenting and employing digital technologies and new media in this regard wherever feasible.

The latest report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism addresses human rights in the context of preventing and countering violent extremism. The Special Rapporteur reinforces that freedom of expression applies to all forms of ideas, information and opinions, including those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any part of the population. He notes that while the right to freedom of expression is a qualified right that can, and sometimes must, be limited, these restrictions must not jeopardise the essence of the right.

The report contains a section dedicated to the “Impact of measures that limit expression and ban online content”, which recognises the role that the internet has played in the recruitment or radicalisation of individuals and has led many states to adopt a combination of repressive legislative measures to block, filter and ban specific content or entire websites. The Special Rapporteur recalls that any measure taken to prevent or remove messages communicated through the internet or other forms of technology constitute an interference with the right to freedom of expression and must be justified. Laws that allow executive authorities to block websites, in the absence of any initial judicial control or ex-post facto judicial recourse, may not comply with this requirement. (The Human Rights Committee notes that bans on the operation of certain sites should not be generic but content-specific; and no site or information dissemination system should be prohibited from publishing material solely on the basis that it may be critical of the government or the social system espoused by the government. Independent judicial recourse must be available.)

In addition, the Special Rapporteur recalls his conclusions that states’ obligations under Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) include the obligation to respect the privacy and security of digital communications. This implies in principle that individuals have the right to share information and ideas with one another without interference by the state, secure in the knowledge that their communication will reach and be read by the intended recipients alone. Measures that interfere with this right must be authorised by domestic law that is accessible and precise, must pursue a legitimate aim and meet the tests of necessity and proportionality. The Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression has noted that many of the efforts to combat hate speech (including requests to block websites) are misguided and, as with violent extremism, strategies addressing the root causes of such viewpoints are to be prioritised. The Special Rapporteur recognises the importance of not letting hate speech go unchecked, but agrees that the underlying causes should also be addressed.

The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism will present their reports on 10 March (9-12h CET). In addition, on 17 March, 15-18h there will be a panel discussion on Preventing Violent Extremism.

This report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlights human rights violations in Palestine, including the use of excessive force and unlawful killings, collective punishment, arbitrary and administrative detention, torture and ill-treatment, and impermissible restrictions on freedom of expression. Information received by the OHCHR indicates that Palestinian security agencies appear to be monitoring Palestinians’ social media activity. The OHCHR documented cases where journalists and civil society activists were threatened or arrested for comments made online that criticise the Palestinian leadership. The report states that such harassment and unlawful restrictions have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The Report on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories will be discussed on 21 March (9-12h CET).

This study, which aims to clarify the scope of the Convention in the context of ongoing global discussion relating to disasters and humanitarian emergencies, to identify good practices, and to make recommendations, notes that “information and communications technologies, particularly the Internet, can significantly enhance the participation of persons with disabilities in public decision-making processes.” The report goes on to recommend that states should increase their efforts to reduce the access gap in the use of the internet and other information and communications technologies, while ensuring full accessibility.

The annual debate on the rights of persons with disabilities will take place on 4 March (9-12h; 15-18h CET).

Universal Periodic Review

“Release the parliamentarians from the opposition who have been imprisoned and take the necessary legal measures to ensure freedom of expression, in the media and on the internet (France); Lift restrictions on access to the Internet within Nauru and facilitate access of journalists to the country (Germany); Take legal and institutional measures to strengthen the independence of the judges, ensure freedom of expression and lift the restrictions on access to Internet and social media (Costa Rica).”

The UPR report of Nauru will be adopted on 16 March (12-15h CET).

“Continue with the impressive process of granting access to the Internet to its population, in particular to underprivileged communities (Haiti); Respect and protect freedom of expression online and offline, and freedom of assembly and association, including by lifting obstacles regarding the registration and work of NGOs, and by acceding to the first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Estonia).”

The UPR report of Rwanda will be adopted on 16 March (15-18h CET).

“Ensure the right to freedom of expression online/offline in law and in practice, including by decriminalizing defamation, and to investigate all cases of threats and attacks against journalists and human rights defenders (Estonia).”

The UPR report of Nepal will be adopted on 16 March (15-18h CET).

“Guarantee that the law on media and publications enables full exercise of freedom of expression, in particular on the Internet (France); Revise its Law to Counter Information Technology Crimes to protect online expression and allow internet access without blocking content (United States of America).”

The UPR report of Oman will be adopted on 17 March (12-15h CET).

“Amend the News Media Law and the 2014 Printing and Publishing law in line with international human rights standards protecting the freedom of expression and ensure that any new laws regulating the internet or access to information comply with such standards (Latvia).”

The UPR report of Oman will be adopted on 17 March (12-15h CET).

NGO side events relating to internet rights

  • “DiploHack: the results”, organised by the Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Port Switzerland and Impact Hub Geneva. This event is scheduled for 29 February,13:15- 14:15h, Room XXIV.

  • “Digital Rights and the Enabling Environments for Civil Society”, organised by the Permanent Mission of Canada in partnership with the Community of Democracies Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society. This event is scheduled for 3 March, 9:30-12:00h at the Permanent Mission of Canada.

  • “Consolidating consensus on HRC Res 16/18 through implementation”, organised by Article 19, Center for Inquiry (CFI), CIVICUS, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and Muslims for Progressive Values. This event is scheduled for 7 March 12:00h – 13:30h, Room XVIII.

  • “Protection needs of human rights defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights: Challenges and good practice”, organised by the International Service for Human Rights. This event is scheduled for 7 March, 13:30-15:00h, Room XVIII.

  • Pitting expression against religion in Asia“, organised by the Association for Progressive Communications, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Developments (FORUM-ASIA), Association for Progressive Communications and Bytes for All, Pakistan. This event is scheduled for 8 March, 14:30-15:30h, Room XVIII.

  • “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age: Challenges and way forward”, organised by the Permanent Missions of Austria, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland, and the Geneva Academy. This event is scheduled for 8 March, 15-17h, Room XXIII.

  • Pakistan: Towards the Third Cycle of UPR“, organised by the Association for Progressive Communications, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Bytes for All, Pakistan. This event is scheduled for 10 March, 9-10h, Room XVIII.

  • “Human Rights and ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’”, organised by Amnesty International and Article 19. This event is scheduled for 10 March, 12-13h, Room XVIII.

Areas of work