On 9 September 2019, the UN Human Rights Council begins its 42nd Session in Geneva (HRC42). Over 3 weeks, major human rights issues will be debated and acted on, with significant implications for the protection of freedom of expression and right to information globally.
The UN Human Rights Council, with its 47 Member States, is an essential forum for the protection of freedom of expression, in particular for the rights of journalists, human rights defenders, and minorities and groups facing discrimination.
As stakeholders prepare for HRC42, the UN’s Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, has set out a series of thematic priorities for States to act upon, including to reverse shrinking civic space for protesters and dissenters, to push back against heavy censorship of the Internet and attacks on digital rights, and to end killings of human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists.
As attacks on the multilateral system intensify, with autocrats even resorting to thuggish and personal jibes at Bachelet herself, it is crucial that rights-respecting States demonstrate that the Council can still deliver strong outcomes for freedom of expression.
In the next three weeks, States will have the opportunity to act to ensure stronger protection for the right to privacy in the digital age, and for individuals facing reprisals, and to end arbitrary detentions. Action will also be needed to tackle the alarming situation for human rights and freedom of expression in Myanmar and Cambodia, highlighted in UN reports to be debated at the HRC. ARTICLE 19 will also be pushing for States to speak out on Turkey, one of the world’s largest jailors of journalists.
Freedom of expression in Myanmar
The human rights situation in Myanmar is high up the agenda at HRC42, with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar , and the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar presenting reports to the Council, and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar providing an oral update on the human rights situation in the country. A follow-up resolution on “The Situation of Rohingya and Other Minorities in Myanmar” will be negotiated during HRC42, led by a group of States on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The HRC must continue to pursue accountability for crimes against humanity in Myanmar, alongside all other violations of international humanitarian and international criminal law. In doing so, States must also speak out against the Government’s persistent attempts to control the narrative and information flows related to the conflict.
The situation remains largely unimproved since ARTICLE 19 issued its midterm UPR report on Myanmar in June. In recent months, long-lasting internet shutdowns in Rakhine and Chin States, severely limiting access to information for persons affected by conflict, and criminal convictions of youth activists campaigning for peace, have exacerbated our concerns. Harassment against journalists, activists, and human rights defenders continues, coupled with tight controls over the media and online speech. At the same time, the government has failed to effectively respond to hate speech against minorities – a situation worsened as voices for pluralism and tolerance are frequently those targeted by repressive measures.
States at HRC42 must also engage with the Fact-Finding Mission’s detailed report on how the business ties of the Tatmadaw have driven conflict and related human rights violations in Myanmar. The report bolsters ARTICLE 19’s own findings that a comprehensive access to information law is required to increase transparency and accountability within the extractive industries sector in the country.
Ensuring that any HRC resolution addresses specifically and in detail freedom of expression violations, alongside demands for comprehensive reforms to open civic space and ensure transparency and access to information, is essential.
Universal Periodic Review
The HRC will adopt a number of outcome reports as part of the Universal Periodic Review, including on Ethiopia. Together with partners, ARTICLE 19 raised serious concerns regarding the ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression in the country in a shadow report. States who champion freedom of expression at the HRC must make full use of the UPR process to drive forward action at national level to promote and protect this right: we call on States to hold the Government of Ethiopia to account and push for the acceptance of all recommendations related to freedom of expression and the right to information, and to monitor their implementation in the coming years.