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Agnès Callamard discusses the times ahead

Agnès Callamard is the former Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 and former IFEX Council member. She is currently the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions. Sara Whyatt spoke with her about the changing human rights landscape, the role of civil society, gendered online threats, what she terms "legal deterioration by imitation", and more.

Twitter/Agnès Callamard

Sara Whyatt: You have had a long career studying and defending human rights. Have you seen many changes in the way human rights organisations are doing this work?

Agnès Callamard: Yes, absolutely, there have been many changes. They reflect a transformation of the world in general: the transformations of international relations and politics, the multiplication and growth of civil society, even our understanding of some human rights violations has changed, and of course we have a radically different communications and information environment. Still, there are some principles that remain as central and important as ever: human dignity, non-discrimination, international solidarity, state obligations, individual accountability, to name some. These principles remain at the heart of the human rights system and values. It is how we go about promoting and defending human rights that has changed.

When it comes to human rights violations, in what areas do you think NGOs have been most effective?

NGOs have been fantastically effective at raising awareness about human rights, at advocating for legal changes, at establishing a range of national and international institutions to enshrine and defend human rights. They have been instrumental in promoting non-discrimination – think about the remarkable changes of the last 20 years with regard to our understanding and the protection of women's human rights, for instance. Individual accountability for human rights violations owes a great deal to NGOs. This is a concept that is now deeply engrained in world discourse, and jurisprudence around the world, even though it is under duress at the moment. This is a central feature of the International Criminal Court, national courts in Latin America among others, and this has a lot to do with human rights NGO advocacy.

There are some principles that remain as central and important as ever: human dignity, non-discrimination, international solidarity, state obligations and individual accountability.

Where else have NGOs had impact?

NGOs have been key to building global networks and running local and global campaigns to protect human rights. But they have also been instrumental in drafting and advocating for policies and standards on complex areas of human rights protection. They have been effective in spreading best media regulation practices from one country to another; at defending and promoting best legal standards in courts through amicus briefs; at insisting on the role of Governments in protecting journalists against violence.

They have also developed global policies on the protection of free speech on-line; they are at the forefront of defending human rights in the on-line world as part of their involvement in the multi-stakeholder governance of Internet. This is an unstable, normative environment that pits states against other states, states against multinational corporations, engineers against corporations and NGOs against corporations and States. In the context of Internet governance, NGOs are norms entrepreneurs, builders and advocates. They demonstrate and insist that the online world is not a terra nulla when it comes to human rights.

Where do you see specific challenges to freedom of expression NGOs today?

For almost a decade now, human rights defenders, organisations, journalists, independent media, have all been under heavy pressure, if not outright attacks: physical violence, including killings, imprisonment, travel bans, legal and financial pressure. In many ways, these are a reflection of civil society's influence, and its power of persuasion, which many governments and other powerful actors want to reign in. But they also reflect the world we live in, in particular the construction of a multi-polar system, and the rivalries between great powers, all of which are played out through proxy wars, a rise in populism, as well as conflicts over norms and values. These conflicts concern, amongst other things, the role and place of civil society, human rights, the notion of “family,” SOGI [sexual orientation and gender identity], etc.

What do you think NGOs should do to be more effective now?

We should reject simple solutions and responses that do not take into account the new environment and its international, political, technological complexity. In the first decade of the 21st century, we confronted what I had referred to as a global trend of “legal deterioration by imitation”, as repressive legislation in one country or region on issues as diverse as internet, social media, and anti-terrorism were exported and mirrored around the world. In this second decade, we are also facing Governments imitating and exporting abusive practices, and the near complete international indifference in response to these violations. It is this silence and a globalising regime of impunity, with intolerance and fears in the background, which free expression NGOs need to decipher, unpack, and counter. This is fundamental.

It is this silence and a globalising regime of impunity, with intolerance and fears in the background, which free expression NGOs need to decipher, unpack, and counter.

We also have to better understand the drivers of change in this environment. One evident focus is the online world. We have not yet fully understood how it functions, how it impacts on individuals, communities, societies, power, and what it means for human rights protection. We are experiencing, learning and we are discovering.

The online world is a formidable opportunity for information and expression, solidarity, awareness. But it is far more than that. This was made clear in 2013, with Edward Snowden's revelations, and throughout this decade with Internet corporate actors mining personal data as part of their business model. How do we reconcile these and many other dimensions of this brave new world? And how do we make them work truly, for freedom of expression and human rights protection?

Do you see a link between on-line threats and actual violence, with women and LGBTQI journalists, bloggers and activists as particular targets?

On-line threats, harassment, and bullying are incontestable, and major threats to freedom of expression. These are part of the complex on-line environment I spoke about, which freedom of expression NGOs need to consider and address, without ideological myopia. Whether these speech acts on-line result in actual and individualised or collective acts of violence may not always be established. But there is little doubt that such speech censors, silences, expulses.

What kind of specific strategies are needed to address these types of attacks?

I find the work done by free speech organisations and activists, internationally, in Pakistan, India, the US, to address on-line violence remarkable. It is a great example of civil society understanding the complexity of this fantastic world, the Internet; celebrating its potential and opportunities for human rights protection, but also denouncing the dimensions that threaten free speech and human rights, and trying out various balanced responses.

I think for instance of the “Take Back the Tech” campaign, initiated by APC, to raise awareness of violence against women on ICT platforms and implement campaigns to take back the tech so that it works for women.

There are many initiatives at a national level, for instance in Pakistan, India, Canada, Europe, where civil society organisations are monitoring and documenting on-line harassment and threats, and doing so on the basis of a freedom of expression framework.

We are still in the early stages, making mistakes and learning from them as we go along. We are not going to counter bullying and harassment without trying out various kinds of responses. Most importantly, we have to reach out, establish relationships and develop joint strategies with actors who may not have been the traditional allies of free speech organisations, such as anti-racist or feminist organisations. The way forward is complex, but it will have to be transversal and transsectoral.

How can we make regulations work for freedom of expression on a non-discriminatory basis? How can we protect the voices of individuals and groups that have historically been discriminated against? How can we ensure the Internet delivers on its radical project of global society, for all?

What do you think about suggestions that social media platforms should block or otherwise mute problematic forms of speech?

Before focusing on the actors, we first need to agree on what constitutes problematic speech. When it comes to bullying and harassment, on or off-line, these are criminal offences with fairly clear legal benchmarks, which should be enforced. I understand that the exponential multiplication of on-line speech poses serious implementation problems to those concerned with its regulation. State interventions may not always be possible, or necessary, or indeed the best option for all parties concerned, including the speakers themselves. Social media platforms may have a role to play.

What concerns me most is the absence of transparent debates regarding this role, and a clear and transparent framework, agreed by a range of stakeholders, to guide the behaviours of all. The current situation is untenable and a threat to freedom of expression, fairness, equal treatment, etc. How can a platform allow shocking images or speech inciting violence against women, but delete posts advocating breast-feeding? This well-known example raises fundamental questions regarding the role of social platforms and the criteria guiding their regulatory decision-making, whether human or mathematical. How can we make regulations work for freedom of expression on a non-discriminatory basis? How can we protect the voices of individuals and groups that have historically been discriminated against? How can we ensure the Internet deliver on its radical project of global society, for all?

What specifically do you think the role of social media corporations should be?

I am not keen on anchoring all speech regulations with these private actors: the implication is the privatization of the main public space for communication, governed by private rules and regulations drafted by corporate actors. But on the other hand, the sheer scale of on-line communications makes it difficult for these actors not to be centrally involved in such regulation. We also need to be mindful that in many countries around the world it is the legal framework and governments that constitute the biggest threat to freedom of expression and information.

Social media corporations must base their regulatory function on the principles of due process: the rules must be accessible and comprehensible by all; they should be regularly reviewed, updated, debated. The process for complaints and adjudication must be transparent and include an appeal; there ought to be regular reports on any content being taken down by social medias platforms.

Here, I must stress that these reports should not only concern content take-downs as per governments' requests, but also, and just as importantly, content take-downs according to the platforms' own rules and terms of services. This kind of regulation, at the hands of private actors, is breaking new frontiers and causing anxiety. There are broad implications. In my opinion, testing and experiencing in a transparent fashion; recognising mistakes; asking for feedback and expertise, without discriminating against certain groups – these will be key to building trust and confidence in the private regulatory functions, along with building knowledge and capacities to implement regulations effectively and properly.

Social media corporations must base their regulatory function on the principles of due process: the rules must be accessible and comprehensible by all; they should be regularly reviewed, updated, debated.

How will you address the link between cyber threats and physical violence in your role as Special Rapporteur on extra judicial executions?

Thankfully, cyber threats are not always linked to actual acts of violence, including killings. But as possible early warnings, they should always be seriously assessed for their likelihood to generate acts of violence. As Special Rapporteur, I am particularly committed to focussing on the prevention of unlawful death. The thorough monitoring and investigation of threats, including on-line threats, play a major function for this purpose. This requires working with governments, the media, intermediaries and civil society groups, to better understand and unpack online threats, and to identify and implement the appropriate responses by all these actors. We need to strengthen our responses to threats so that, together, we better and more effectively protect the right to life.

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