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Image: Cover illustration of the !A-Z of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council" report.

The 43rd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC43) is taking place over four weeks (24 February to 20 March 2020) in Geneva. During this session, more than 90 reports will be presented on thematic and country-specific human rights situations from UN Special Procedures, the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council is expected to act on between 40 and 45 draft resolutions and other texts and appoint 19 new mandate holders.

A number of key issues for internet rights are on the agenda at HRC43. APC’s priorities at this HRC session include gender and privacy online, freedom of religion or belief, the impact of new technology on cultural rights, and the criminalisation of human rights defenders, journalists and digital security and tech expertise. The session also presents the opportunity to address critical violations of internet rights in countries like India and Myanmar.

Internet rights at HRC43: Key priorities for APC
Freedom of religion or belief online

A session on 2 March considered the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, which addresses religion or belief and gender equality. APC welcomes international processes taking into account gender perspectives and the voices of women and people of diverse and marginalised genders and sexualities on matters relating to freedom of religion or belief. The Special Rapporteur expresses concerns regarding the alarming trend of gender-based violence and discrimination caused by laws religious justification worldwide. In its contribution to this report, APC called for states to reform laws to ensure that political and religious expression of LGBTIQA+ persons is protected and to refrain from providing impunity to perpetrators of hate speech and violence against them in online and offline spaces.

APC also highlighted the role that the private sector should play in addressing gender and religion-based hate speech. To that end, our contribution states, companies must reform their community standards and root them in international human rights standards. Most importantly, “the private sector must immediately refrain from making their platforms available or providing advertising space to fundamentalist and intolerant groups.”

Freedom of religion and expression online has became critical for APC’s work. With a focus on Asia, APC, in partnership with organisations in the region, is developing in-depth research on this issue and thematic areas related to freedom of expression and religion online, building the capacity of civil society in South and Southeast Asia to effectively counter hate speech online, advocating for policy change at national, regional and international levels, engaging with companies to promote their adherence to international human rights law and standards when dealing with content related to hate speech, and generating content that promotes discourses and narratives that are secular, diverse, inclusive and rights-respecting on issues relating to religion, among other issues.

Gender and privacy

On 4 March, the HRC considered the report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, which addresses gender perspectives on privacy. As an organisation that has worked at the intersections of women’s rights, sexual rights and technology for more than two decades, APC welcomes a gender perspective being integrated in the work of the mandate. Privacy creates the necessary space for people who face discrimination or marginalisation based on their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, to fully enjoy their human rights. The gendered dimensions of the right to privacy in the digital age are significant but still largely unexplored.

APC has been contributing to this line of work of the mandate, providing written input and during opportunities to share our views. As we have stated, for women and LGBTIQ persons, conversations about privacy cannot take place without also reflecting on the surveillance they face – by states and non-state actors, including in their intimate relationships, families, friendships, among others – in their immediate social environment. For APC, considerations of privacy should take account of autonomy, bodily integrity, sexuality and sexual expression and include perspectives that relate to decision making over one's own personal data and information.

APC values the intersectional approach taken by the Special Rapporteur in this report. The privacy violations that women and LGBTIQ persons experience take place within a context of existing structural inequalities and discrimination which put them at particular risk of violence and other types of human rights violations. Intersectionality should be seen as the framework that gives visibility to and questions powers and privileges that emerge as a result of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other social and cultural hierarchies.

In line with APC contributions, we welcome the recommendation on promoting encryption tools to protect the rights and security of individuals and minority groups. Marginalised or persecuted sexual minorities find spaces for exercising their freedom of speech and association more privately in online spaces as compared to offline spaces, and it is crucial that they have access to tools that enable them to protect the confidentiality of digital communications to ensure their enjoyment of human rights.

APC also commends the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation for both states and companies to require gender-aware privacy impact assessments prior to the introduction of new products, services, legislation and other initiatives. Meaningful engagement of women and LGBTIQ persons in the design and development of these policies and features will be also desirable. It is key to stress the importance of design with rather than for these groups.

The protection of human and cultural rights defenders

The report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights presented at this session of the HRC aims to raise awareness about the work of cultural rights defenders, understood as human rights defenders who defend cultural rights in accordance with international standards. The report includes an overview of the diverse kinds of human rights work that cultural rights defenders engage in, the challenges and risks they face, and the international legal framework that enables their work, and offers specific recommendations as to how to better support and protect them. The report does not create a new category. Instead, "it explicitly names, clearly identifies, and seeks to empower and raise the profile of an existing, often ignored, subcategory of human rights defenders, in line with a more coherent and comprehensive approach by the Secretary-General to protecting human rights defenders.

According to the Special Rapporteur's report, "cultural rights defenders may work to protect and promote the cultural rights, including the right to take part in cultural life without discrimination, of specific constituencies, such as indigenous peoples; members of minorities; women; persons with disabilities; peasants and rural persons; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons; youth or older persons; or refugees and migrants." The report notes that cultural rights defenders in certain circumstances face similar human rights violations as other human rights defenders. The report explicitly mentions that "emerging concerns regarding digital security, including online harassment, surveillance and repression are also relevant,” and calls for their rights to be ensured online and offline.

APC together with Humanists International prepared a statement welcoming the Special Rapporteur’s attention to digital security and the online harassment and surveillance experienced by cultural rights defenders. As the Special Rapporteur’s report highlights, states should address the threats, harassment and violence that women human rights defenders experience, both by state and non-state actors. In this regard, the APC joint statement urged the Council and member states to read the report in conjunction with the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, since the internet and communication technologies are an important tool for women who seek to challenge harmful and sexist majoritarian cultural and religious practices. “The politicisation of culture and religion plays into the hands of groups that perpetrate hate speech against those questioning these norms,” the statement notes, adding that “art and culture are integral in bringing about social and political reform progress, especially in the defence of human rights.” For example, in recent protests in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (see more here and here), women and young protesters have resorted to creative means such as poetry and traditional art forms to express dissent. The statement concludes by asking what states can do to hold the private sector and non-state actors accountable to prevent, remedy and eliminate online violence against cultural rights defenders.

Around the world, the situation of human rights defenders is increasingly precarious. APC has joined with other civil society organisations to express concern over the global trend of persecuting digital rights defenders – including security researchers and trainers who act to protect and promote human rights – and to demand the strong protection of their work and their recognition as human rights defenders. Cybercrime law is increasingly being used to criminalise the activities of digital rights defenders and legitimate journalistic practices.

This trend has a detrimental effect on human rights, both online and offline. Cases like the political interference in the criminal case against digital security expert and human rights defender Ola Bini in Ecuador and the investigation and the arbitrary measures taken against Alaa Abdel Fattah in Egypt, among others, are part of a growing and dangerous global trend.

The work that digital rights defenders do in defence of privacy is fundamental for the protection of human rights. When they raise awareness about the existence of vulnerabilities in systems, they allow the public and private sector to find solutions that improve infrastructure and software security for the benefit of the public. Their work as security advisers for journalists and human rights activists is of vital importance for the safety of journalists, activists and other human rights defenders.

APC also welcomes the recommendations in the report of the Special Rapporteur on privacy to specially protect women and gender-diverse human rights defenders from all forms of violence and to repeal laws that criminalise them, as well as its call for both states and companies to promote encryption, since it is a tool that enables human rights defenders, individuals, and minority groups to express and associate on sensitive matters, including sexual orientation.

APC firmly believes that the work of digital rights defenders as a legitimate exercise of human rights must be protected. At this session of the HRC, states will consider a resolution extending for three years the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. APC has joined other civil society organisations from across the world in a call for states to support the consensus renewal of the mandate, and to resist any attempt to undermine the mandate and states' obligations. “This is a key opportunity for States and the Council to demonstrate their support and recognition for the indispensable role defenders play to ensure that all people enjoy freedom, dignity, justice and equality,” says the joint statement.

Freedom of peaceful assembly in the digital age

APC recognises the potential of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly: assemblies can be carried out wholly online, and digital technologies can be used to support in-person mobilisation. The UN Human Rights Committee is developing a new General Comment on the right to peaceful assembly.

At APC we believe this is especially relevant in the current global climate, which is why we have contributed to the work of the Committee to strengthen the protection of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly online. During the HRC43, APC participated in a multistakeholder meeting where the Committee received inputs from civil society and academia, among others. As stated in our written submission, APC encourages further engagement and clarity in the draft general comment regarding the expanding realm of online or digital assemblies.

APC also seeks to illustrate the emerging opportunities associated with digital technologies and how they empower people and groups in positions of marginalisation – such as women, persons with disabilities, LGBTIQ communities, and linguistic, religious and other minorities – but also calls for acknowledgement of the effects that the increased use of information technologies for mass surveillance, such as facial recognition, has on the full enjoyment of the right to peaceful assembly, especially for these groups.

Among other issues, our submission stresses the need for meaningful access to the internet as a necessary precondition for the exercise of peaceful assembly online. That is why the Human Rights Committee should expressly recognise in the draft that internet shutdowns, as the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has stated, are in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified in any circumstances.

Country-specific situations

Key issues of focus on India relate to restrictions and violations suffered by women and LGBTIQ+ communities in the name of religion, discriminatory laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the violence and hate speech perpetrated by political actors and police against protestors.

On 2 March, the side event “India: Constitutional and civic space crisis”, organised by CIVICUS and others, addressed the escalating levels of harassment and restrictions faced by human rights defenders and civil society activists in India. The systematic use of restrictive laws against critics and an ongoing clampdown on public gatherings and internet freedoms now go beyond Jammu and Kashmir. While a divisive and discriminatory citizenship law has sparked widespread protests across India, these have been met with arbitrary arrests, excessive force and violence by the authorities. As the situation continues to deteriorate, the side event looked at what action is needed by states, civil society and the United Nations to ensure an end to these human rights violations in the world’s largest democracy.

As one of the speakers in the event, APC's Gayatri Khandhadai emphasised: "What we are witnessing in India today is not an anomaly, it is not sudden. The pogrom against the protection of rights and secularism of the constitution is the result of a systematic erosion of state institutions and carefully coordinated hate campaigns online and offline targeting religious minorities, progressive voices and political activists. It is not only the attacks on the independence of media that must worry us, it is the active co-option and peddling of hate narratives that certain media groups engage in that has led us to where we are."

These issues were also raised by Khandhadai at the side event organised by the European Union and Canada on 3 March 2020, titled "Common Ground: Safeguarding Freedom of Religion or Belief and Gender Equality", in relation to the situation of women and LGBT+ persons facing hate speech, police violence and discriminatory laws.

For a better understanding on the situation in India, please take a look at our briefing note.


In the case of Myanmar, APC highlighted issues raised ahead of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in relation to restrictive laws impacting digital rights, prolonged network shutdowns in Rakhine state, hate speech in online platforms in the name of religion, arrest and harassment of activists opposing hate, and network shutdowns.

The 43rd HRC session will consider the report of the High Commissioner on the root causes of the human rights violations and abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority and other minorities in Myanmar, followed by an interactive dialogue, as well as a report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, on the latest human rights developments in the country.

In addition, the HRC will hear an oral update by the Secretary-General on the involvement of the UN in Myanmar, followed by a concerned country statement and an interactive dialogue. The HRC President will also appoint a mandate holder to fill the vacancy for the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. In keeping with the previous year, a resolution led by the European Union will be put forward requesting the High Commissioner to track progress concerning the human rights situation of the Rohingya people. This resolution will take note of the network shutdowns in the region and other restrictions implemented. APC has been in support of the resolution in the past and will continue to engage with members to defend the rights of all persons, including religious and ethnic minorities, in Myanmar.

On 9 March 2020 at the Interactive Dialogue with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation in Myanmar, APC will deliver an oral statement on restrictions placed on freedom of expression and assembly. We will highlight violations in relation to the ongoing network shutdowns in the states of Rakhine and Chin and the crackdown on protestors, including the arrest of nine student union members for protesting against network shutdowns in Rakhine state. APC will urge the government of Myanmar to reconcile national laws in accordance with international standards and to engage with the upcoming UPR process in the spirit of promoting and protecting human rights for all.

Follow HRC43 online

The Twitter hashtag for the session is #HRC43, and plenary sessions will be live streamed and archived at this link. The list of reports being considered at HRC43 is available here.