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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression

Human Rights Council

10 July 2020

Concludes Discussion on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.  It also concluded an interactive dialogue with the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said it was critical for governments to improve or reinforce, as necessary, their programmes for access to information, and noted that Internet shutdowns and other limitations on access to the Internet harmed public health.  Threats to the media had unconscionably continued during the pandemic, including intimidation of journalists, attacks on reporters, restrictions of space for reporting, lack of access for foreign reporters, and the arbitrary detention of journalists, even though prisons were extremely dangerous for public health, he noted.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that while the importance of freedom of opinion and expression was clear, they were deeply concerned that States were not fulfilling their human rights obligations in this regard, often with impunity.  This was particularly troubling during extraordinary times of health crises and national emergencies.  To prevent the spread of COVID-19, restrictions on freedom of expression must strictly abide by international human rights law.  He spoke about his visit to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia spoke as a concerned country. 

Speaking during the discussion were Canada on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group, Sweden on behalf of the Nordic Baltic Countries, Costa Rica on behalf of a group of countries, Paraguay, Qatar (video message), State of Palestine, Sierra Leone, Russian Federation, Netherlands, Libya, China, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, France, Cuba, Pakistan, Montenegro, Armenia, Venezuela, Tunisia, Latvia, India, Philippines (video message), Australia, Jordan, Indonesia, Luxembourg, South Africa, Bahrain, Czech Republic, Iraq, Belgium, Lebanon, Greece, Ireland, Austria, Egypt, Viet Nam, Nepal, Nigeria, United Kingdom, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Georgia, Ukraine, Niger, Slovakia, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Singapore, South Sudan, Chad, Belarus, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations : Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Article 19 - International Centre against Censorship, International Humanist and Ethical Union, International Service for Human Rights, International Bar Association, International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Human Rights House Foundation, Conectas Direitos Humanos, CIVICUS, and Amnesty International.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.  The interactive dialogue started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Speakers emphasised that corruption undermined the very foundations of institutions and weakened the rule of law, condemning States that used corruption as a pillar of their foreign policy.  It was not enough to simply regulate private businesses, as the role of governments, especially in State-controlled economies, should not be forgotten.  The effects of COVID-19 on migrant workers were especially concerning, as both governments and companies evaded their responsibilities, leaving migrant workers stranded in their host countries. 

In her concluding remarks, Anita Ramasastry, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, emphasised that the Working Group interpreted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a framework meant to help guide everyone - States, civil society and companies - an important normative framework that allowed the Working Group to seek consistency and protection of rights holders in regulations that come forward.  On how the Guiding Principles developed over time - nationally, regionally or internationally – the Working Group was part of the discussion but it was not for it to decide what kind of binding or regulatory measures were best as all moved forward. 

Taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations : France Libertes - Fondation Danielle Mitterrand, Peace Brigades International Switzerland, Asian Forum, Institute for NGO Research, Society for Threatened Peoples, International Institute for Rights and Development Geneva, China Society for Human Rights Studies, Iraqi Development Organization, and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain Inc.

Speaking in right of reply were India, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Brazil and Pakistan.

The webcast of the meetings of the Human Rights Council can be found here.

The Council will next meet at 10 a.m. on Monday, 13 July to hold the first panel of the annual discussion on the human rights of women : accountability for women and girls in humanitarian settings, to be followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises

The interactive dialogue with the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Speakers emphasised that corruption undermined the very foundations of institutions and weakened the rule of law, condemning States that used corruption as a pillar of their foreign policy.  It was not enough to simply regulate private businesses, as the role of governments, especially in State-controlled economies, should not be forgotten.  Corruption remained one of the main factors that facilitated corporate State capture in Asia and policy coherence remained one of the best ways to combat it.  The mining industry in particular was brought up as an example of a poorly regulated sector plagued by corruption.  The effects of COVID-19 on migrant workers were especially concerning, as both governments and companies evaded their responsibilities, leaving migrant workers stranded in their host countries. 

Concluding Remarks

ANITA RAMASASTRY, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporation and other business enterprises, emphasised that the Working Group interpreted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a framework meant to help guide everyone - States, civil society and companies - an important normative framework that allowed the Working Group to seek consistency and protection of rights holders in regulations that come forward.  On how the Guiding Principles developed over time - nationally, regionally or internationally – the Working Group was part of the discussion but it was not for it to decide what kind of binding or regulatory measures were best as all moved forward.  The Working Group ensured consistency.  Ms. Ramasastry underlined that the Working Group's mandate was to focus on the relationship between business and human rights, and how States could ensure that businesses respected human rights.  The report built on the Human Rights Council's work, which looked at States and what happened when States were public institutions engaged in corrupt activity, and how that impacted rights holders.  The report said that business also engaged in corrupt behaviour, sometimes in partnership with States, but when it do so for its own benefit, that had a serious human rights impact. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on disease pandemic and the freedom of opinion and expression (A/HRC/44/49).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on his visit to Ethiopia (A/HRC/44/49.Add.1).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on his visit to Ethiopia - Comment by the State (A/HRC/44/49.Add.3).

Presentation of Reports by the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, speaking about his visit to Ethiopia, said the period preceding 2018 had been characterized by repression of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society organizations, the media, and the broader public.  Against that baseline, the commitments and early steps of the present Government were deserving of global support.  The Government had, inter alia, released journalists, political activists and human rights defenders arbitrarily detained by the previous government, and committed to avoid the unlawful surveillance of the past.  Recent weeks had underscored the risks posed by social and political forces.  The Special Rapporteur was especially concerned that, following the tragic late June murder of the popular and politically engaged singer and cultural figure, Hachalu Hundessa, the Government should meet its stated commitments and reduce tensions by building an environment protective of freedom of expression. 

Turning to his thematic report, pre-pandemic, unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression often failed to meet the standards of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whether on grounds of legality, necessity, or legitimacy of the objective.  The report offered recommendations to meet five challenges.  First, it was critical for governments to improve or reinforce, as necessary, their programmes for access to information.  Second, Internet shutdowns and other limitations on access to the Internet harmed public health.  Third, threats to the media had unconscionably continued during the pandemic, including intimidation of journalists, attacks on reporters, restrictions of space for reporting, lack of access for foreign reporters, and the arbitrary detention of journalists even though prisons were extremely dangerous for public health.  Fourth, the World Health Organization referred to public health disinformation as an infodemic, and governments may be tempted to treat such disinformation with harsh measures given the harm disinformation can have on public health.  Fifth, authorities and epidemiologists noted that public health surveillance – through testing, contact tracing and notification – was essential to controlling the spread of the disease.  Even so, any measures of surveillance must be consistent with human rights law norms of necessity and proportionality.  In conclusion, he recognized three stakeholders without whom he could not have conducted his work and who deserved protection and support from the Council : civil society, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Special Procedures.

Statement by Concerned Country

Ethiopia, speaking as a concerned country, thanked the Special Rapporteur for his visit, noting that it demonstrated Ethiopia's commitment to promote human rights.  Bold reforms had led to the widening of the public state in the country, as media, civil society, academia and other stakeholders were able to fully exercise their right to freedom of expression.  A new and comprehensive media law was currently being drafted, while many laws were also being amended with a view of promoting free speech and the freedom of opinion and expression.  More than 246 websites and television channels that were previously blocked due to their political positions were now allowed to operate in the country, leading to a boom in public discourse.  A large number of opposition figures, bloggers, journalists and more were also released from prison.  Hate speech and disinformation was a serious issue that led to conflict and displacement, therefore a new law regarding hate speech and disinformation had been enacted to remind citizens of their responsibilities, and the legislation went through three public consultations with all stakeholders. 

Discussion

While the importance of freedom of opinion and expression was clear, speakers were deeply concerned that States were not fulfilling their human rights obligations in this regard, often with impunity.  This was particularly troubling during extraordinary times of health crises and national emergencies.  To prevent the spread of COVID-19, restrictions on freedom of expression must strictly abide by international human rights law.  Speakers expressed concern about the increase of instances of intimidation and reprisals against journalists and human rights defenders reporting on COVID-19.  Governments should enact positive obligations to communicate on the pandemic, some speakers said.  Other speakers said there should be policies fostering access to reliable information while refraining from unduly restricting the right to communicate on this issue.  In times of crisis, including health emergencies, restrictions on freedom of expression must meet criteria of necessity, proportionality and human rights compliance vis-à-vis both regional and international human rights norms. 

Some speakers denounced biased attacks against individual countries and international organizations that sought to blame them for the pandemic - an approach fraught with disastrous consequences.  Some countries had resorted to racially discriminatory and stigmatizing language to divert attention away from their failure to adequately tackle the pandemic.  Several speakers warned against the negative impact of the "infodemic" and "fake news".  The situation called for a participatory reflection, carried out in a multilateral manner, other speakers said.  Some urged the development of an encompassing vision that considered limits to the freedom of expression, as well as accountability issues.  Societies could not protect themselves against diseases if the trust in information was diminishing. 

Interim Remarks

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in interim remarks, noted that with regard to disinformation, governments had a proactive role, providing honest and accurate information to the public.  With time, as more research could be done on this issue, Mr. Kaye said that the States that were honest and open with the public would be the ones where disinformation did not take hold.  It was critical that governments listened to the disinformation and public fears, and only then responded and corrected it - their role was not to penalise this information.  The Joint Declaration of 2017 provided some guidance to governments on how to deal with disinformation.  In the context of social media, Mr. Kaye urged States not to move immediately to prevention, rather thinking about the tools needed to understand what was happening online.  Transparency requirements and privacy of individuals were more important in this regard.  In his October 2019 report, Mr. Kaye said he dealt with online hate speech, noting that States had the obligation to prohibit it by law, be cautious in their approach, and condemn hate speech when they saw it.  Mr. Kaye urged India to keep the Internet open in Kashmir, and allow his successor to conduct a mission in the country, while also noting that not all people in China had freedom of expression, especially when considering the situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. 

Discussion

Speakers underlined the increases in instances of false information with respect to public health and sought information on how to best balance government response.  There was a dependent relationship between public health on one hand, and the spread of information facilitated by freedom of opinion and expression on the other.  Some speakers made the connection between the spread of hate speech and disinformation, the panic they caused among populations, and the fact that as a result, this facilitated recruitment by terrorist groups.  Other speakers emphasised that people must be allowed to challenge their governments and express their opinions freely.  The tireless work of Mr. Kaye throughout his mandate was noted by many speakers, who thanked him for the quality of the report, as well as his exceptional commitment and willingness to look into contemporary challenges linked to emerging technologies.  Speakers also sought his input into the steps that States should take in future emergencies, especially with regard to contact tracing.  The importance of free expression in the arts was highlighted ; since art had the potential to unite people in the face of global hardship and isolation, did the Special Rapporteur have any comments on artistic expression during the COVID-19 pandemic ?  Speakers also expressed their concerns about the fact that many governments had put in place measures to prevent healthcare workers from publicly speaking about national COVID-19 responses.

Concluding Remarks

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, flagged issues of particular concern, including journalist protection and impunity for attacks on journalists ; the denigration and censorship of the media ; the importance for restrictions to meet legality, necessity, proportionality and legitimacy criteria ; disproportionate punishment levied against artists and academics ; and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  He urged support for his successor.

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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