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What is at stake for free expression at the UN Human Rights Council meeting?

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein addresses the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, 2 March 2015
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein addresses the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, 2 March 2015

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

This statement was originally published on on 2 March 2015.

By Andrew Smith

Kicking off this week, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 28th Session to act on some of the most pressing human rights challenges facing the world today.

The opening speech to the high level segment by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, gave a powerful message that none of the atrocities we have seen in recent months should divert the Council from its mission and do not "justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth". He reminded States of the "enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties" they ratified. In particular, he spoke out against the brutal suppression of tweets and emphasised repeatedly the important role of civil society actors to the effectiveness of the UN's work.

The speech provides an excellent footing from which the Council must get to work. As always, freedom of expression is at the centre of much of the packed agenda. Among the key issues ARTICLE 19 will be working on include:

- Maintaining consensus on Resolution 16/18, and stressing to States the importance of stepping up implementation;
- Defending artistic expression;
- Establishing a special rapporteur on the right to privacy;

You can follow @article19un for live updates, watch the Session live, and use #HRC28 to join the discussion.

Here is more of a detailed breakdown of what to expect on some of the issues ARTICLE 19 will be following:


In recent weeks, the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief have been brought into sharp focus. The assault on Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher Supermarket in Paris and copy-cat murders in Copenhagen; the murder of Muslim students in North Carolina; the anti-Muslim marches in Germany; the flogging of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia; the murder of a humanist blogger in Bangladesh; the on-going persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka; the mass executions of Coptic Christian migrant workers in Libya… the list is depressingly long.

In the face of such violence, the universality of human rights is often questioned. That is why the importance of Resolution 16/18 "on combatting intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief" cannot be overstated.

Adopted in 2011, Resolution 16/18 replaced deeply divisive calls for States to combat "defamation of religions" with commitments to promote the mutually reinforcing rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination. Reiterations of it have been passed by consensus every year since (Res 25/34 being the most recent). It will again come up for debate at this Session, at a time when the consensus underpinning the text is paper-thin.

An eight-point action plan contained in resolution 16/18 calls on States to address intolerance primarily through positive measures. This includes initiatives to enact measures to speak out against intolerance, to establish collaborative networks to build mutual understanding, to recognize the value of open, constructive and respectful debate, and to criminalise incitement to imminent violence based on religion or belief. The Rabat Plan of Action, adopted following expert workshops convened by OHCHR, provides additional guidance based on international human rights standards relevant to this exercise.

Going into the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council, we will be stressing (and re-stressing) to States that maintaining consensus on Resolution 16/18 is crucial. Any attempts to shift the text from the principle at its core, that free expression and freedom of religion or belief are both essential to securing equality and non-discrimination, must be strongly resisted.

At the same time, we'll push States to lead by example in implementing the eight-point action plan in Resolution 16/18. To provide a solid basis for this, States must address the abysmally low rate of reporting on implementation to date. Only 15 States responded to requests for information on implementation of 16/18 to OHCHR this year, which is even worse than last year. The next iteration of 16/18 should seek more focused submissions from States on each point of the resolution's plan of action, and future reporting mandated by the Council should be open to input from relevant special procedures, civil society, the media, faith groups, and human rights institutions.

ARTICLE 19 will be chairing a discussion on the implementation of Resolution 16/18 (Tuesday 10 March, 4:30pm, Room 22) at an event we're co-organising with FIDH, Forum Asia, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights First and the Universal Rights Group. Speakers will include representatives of civil society from Malaysia, Pakistan and Myanmar, together with Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who will give an overview of his recent report on violence committed in the name of religion.


The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has previously emphasised that the effects of artistic censorship are "devastating", yet it is an issue that has largely escaped detailed scrutiny by the Council".

Attempts to intimidate artists into silence range from egregious acts and threats of violence to prosecution and imprisonment. Laws that violate free expression are applied to shield authorities from criticism and sterilise important debates. More subtle forms of censorship, from limiting access to public space to commercial pressures, also shape how taboos are (or aren't) discussed.

As artist Deeyah Khan told the Human Rights Council in its June 2014 panel discussion on civil society space, art is often one of the first targets for censorship in societies cracking down on diversity and dissent. The Council went on to acknowledge the important role of artists in this context in resolution 27/31 on civil society space, adopted by consensus last September.

So what is next?

On Friday 6 March, ARTICLE 19 will host an event in Geneva to debate why the Human Rights Council should act to defend artistic expression, featuring David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and artists from Malaysia, Cameroon, Belarus, and Denmark.

For this event, we're pleased to team up with the Working Group on Freedom of Expression under the Community of Democracies, and also thank the co-chairs of the working group, the Permanent Missions of the United States of America and Uruguay, for their support. Please join us!


The Snowden revelations since June 2013 continue to reverberate at the UN Human Rights Council, as States grapple with how to protect and promote privacy in the face of massive technological advancements that enable pervasive and almost total surveillance. As we continue to argue, freedom of expression is contingent on privacy, which is why we will be following this issue closely.

In December 2014, the General Assembly adopted its second resolution on privacy in the digital age, which encouraged the Human Rights Council to consider creating a special procedure on the right to privacy. Brazil and Germany, for reasons familiar to anyone who has followed the Snowden leaks, will be leading a resolution on this topic at the Council this March. While political motivations are undoubtedly a driving force behind the resolution, it provides the Council with an opportunity to create a mechanism for addressing a right that has for too long been neglected by the UN.

Last September, the High Commissioner presented a high-profile report on the right to privacy in the digital age to the Council that slammed governments' mass surveillance programmes, also calling for greater attention to the right to privacy. Existing special Rapporteurs, notably on freedom of opinion and expression and on human rights and counter-terrorism, have both supported calls for the creation of a dedicated mandate on this issue.

ARTICLE 19 is part of a broad coalition of organisations calling for the creation of a special rapporteur on the right to privacy. As we have written to States to emphasise, the current lack of a dedicated thematic special procedure on the right to privacy hinders the capacity of the HRC to provide leadership in protecting and promoting this right. A Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy would fill this significant institutional gap and enable the HRC to take a leading role in identifying and clarifying principles, standards and best practices regarding the promotion and protection of the right to privacy.

Some of the key issues will be the extent to which the text of the resolution takes agreed UN language from the 2014 General Assembly resolution, or if it tries to build on it further, for example by looking at issues of extra-territoriality of human rights obligations in this area. The scope of any Special Rapporteur's mandate will also be determined by the text, and there may be divisions between States on whether to focus on digital issues, or frame a broader mandate in terms of the right to privacy as set out in international law (Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).


Entering 2015, the Human Rights Council membership has gone through another cycle. We'll be watching how Bolivia, Paraguay, El Salvador, Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, Qatar, Albania, Latvia, the Netherlands and Portugal engage on all the above initiatives, particularly when resolutions are considered for adoption on 26 – 27 March.

Stay tuned for more updates as the 28th Session continues!


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