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The Human Rights Council 44th session (HRC44) wrapped up on 14 July. As we noted in our pre-session briefing, the internet and new technologies were in focus, with a number of resolutions, panels and reports touching on the online dimension of human rights.
This session, held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, presented several obstacles for civil society participation both remotely and in person. Among other challenges, information about modalities was scarce and last minute, and there were several difficulties in meeting the technical requirements for video statements, obstacles due to time zones for those not based in Geneva, and limited opportunities for remote participation in informal negotiations. The HRC is a key platform to raise concerns about threats and challenges in the digital context, but the Council must ensure a process that is accessible, transparent, inclusive and responsive to civil society.
Here are some highlights of outcomes relating to human rights online at this past session.
We welcome the adoption of the resolutions on freedom of opinion and expression and on promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. Some of their main aspects are detailed below, in particular as they refer to the exercise of human rights online.
Freedom of opinion and expression
The new freedom of opinion and expression resolution addresses the right to information. It also expresses concern with the many forms of digital divide, including the gender digital divide. The text adopted touches on the continued freedom of expression violations faced by journalists and human rights defenders, in particular by women. The document emphasises that technical solutions to secure and protect the confidentiality of communications, including measures for encryption and anonymity, can be important to ensure the enjoyment of human rights. The resolution also stresses that any measure to address the challenges of disinformation and misinformation should be grounded in principles of lawfulness, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality. Finally, it strongly condemns the use of internet shutdowns to disrupt access to information.
Promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests
The resolution on human rights in the context of peaceful protests was adopted by consensus and calls on states to refrain from using digital technology to silence or surveil individuals or groups solely for having engaged in protests. The text expressly refers to the use of new and emerging digital tracking tools such as facial recognition, international mobile subscriber identity(IMSI) catchers (“stingrays”) and closed circuit television. It emphasises the importance of measures for encryption and anonymity. It also states that governments should refrain or cease measures aimed at shutting down the internet and telecommunications or at imposing other restrictions, including online censorship. The resolution notes that although an assembly has generally been understood as a physical gathering of people, human rights protections also apply to analogous activities taking place online.
Racial discrimination and emerging digital technologies
The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, presented a landmark report addressing the racialised and ethnic impact of new digital technologies. The report builds on APC’s input to address the impact of automated systems on discrimination against marginalised groups in their access to work, and how emerging digital technologies used for predictive policing reinforce racial discrimination and disproportionatelyaffect impoverished communities of ethnic or racial minorities.
APC together with more than 80 organisations welcomed the report through a joint statement. In the statement, among other issues, we welcomed the report’s focus on digital divides as a way to illustrate the intersectionality of discrimination in technology, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this. We also welcome the Special Rapporteur’s joining the call for an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of surveillance tech until robust human rights safeguards are in place.
Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls
The Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls presented a thematic report on women’s human rights in the changing world of work. In this report, the Working Group analyses the gender dimensions of major trends changing the world of work, including technology, accelerated globalisation and the shifts to sustainable economies. We welcome the report and the focus on the structural and systemic discrimination that already exists and that is faced by women in all phases of their lives. In the report, the Working Group also provides guidance on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling on states to take a gender-sensitive intersectional approach in their responses to the crisis.
The report brings to light how technological advances may create new possibilities but also compound challenges. Technology has facilitated more flexible work arrangements, says the report, as well as greater access to distance learning and networing. Technology has also further enabled women to collectively organise and strengthen their political voice. However, as the report states, there is a risk that the growth of digital platforms, including the gig economy, will likely contribute to heightening women’s economic inequality by increasing informalisation of women’s work.
Panel discussion on new digital technologies
On 8 July, a panel discussion on the impact of new and emerging digital technologies on human rights took place. During the panel, the drafting group provided updates on the progress of the report requested by the Council to the HRC Advisory Committee on the impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to human rights. This report, which will have a holistic approach to new technologies and human rights and will address technology, human rights and internet governance , will be presented to the Council at its 47th session. María Paz Canales, executive director of APC member organisation Derechos Digitales, participated as a panellist. Her remarks focused on the need for human rights impact assessments that also address the impact of new technologies on social, economic and cultural rights. She also brought attention to persisting digital divides.
Special Procedures mandates and appointments
Irene Khan was appointed as the new Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, replacing David Kaye. Khan is a lawyer born in Bangladesh who was the secretary-general of Amnesty International and director-general of the International Development Law Organization. At APC, we welcome Khan, the first woman to be appointed as Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, and we look forward to continuing to collaborate with the mandate. We also express our thanks to David Kaye for his commitment to defending and promoting human rights online and also for his openness to working with civil society. We particularly value his efforts to stand up for human rights defenders in all regions.
APC at HRC44
APC issued a written statement on the implications of COVID-19 for human rights online. In the statement, APC notes that responses by governments have revealed fault lines that challenge international human rights law. “While we recognise that these are extraordinary times, this 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 stresses.
APC joined 20 organisations to call for meaningful participation of civil society at the HRC. While acknowledging the challenges the Council confronted in the context of COVID-19, we draw attention to the obstacles for civil society participation in the session.
APC joined more than 80 organisations in a statement of support for the report “Racial discrimination and emerging digital technologies: A human rights analysis” by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. Racial inequality remains an urgent and devastating issue around the world, and this is as true in the context of technology as it is everywhere else, says the statement. Emerging technologies reproduce the discriminatory systems that build and govern them, so structural intervention to mitigate their racially discriminatory impacts is needed.
APC joined an end-of-session statement in which, together with almost 20 groups, we call attention to the essential role of civil society in defending human rights. Among other things, the statement urges states and the Council to protect and promote civil society space.
APC issued a joint statement with the Sexual Rights Initiative, Center for Reproductive Rights, Choice for Youth and Sexuality and Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) to welcome the the resolution adopted at this session, which focused on multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination faced by women and girls and the measures states should take to address the same. However, as the statement emphasises, "The COVID 19 pandemic has made it startlingly clear we live in a deeply unequal world. Inequalities on gender, racial, ethnic, class lines in every state cannot be ignored. While the Council has started to address these patterns of intersectional discrimination, it needs to remind itself that it is primarily accountable to women and girls themselves and put them at the centre of any and all of its deliberations."