Human Rights 27 July 2012

The United Nations Human Rights Council and the Internet Society

By Nicolas SeidlerFormer Senior Policy Advisor

The issue of Human Rights and the Internet has come to the forefront as a key issue in international policy discussions and as a source of opportunities, but also challenges, to users’ ability to exercise their rights online. On July 6 2012, the Human Rights Council wrapped up its 20th session in Geneva, dealing with these Internet-related issues. You may have read headlines about the Council adopting a new Resolution on the “The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet” .

The text emphasizes that offline Human Rights are fully applicable online and that the Internet is a driving force for development. The Resolution also calls upon member states to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and encourage Special procedures of the Human Rights Council (e.g. Special Rapporteurs, thematic or country mandates) to take into consideration the fundamental rights of citizens online as well as offline.

This Resolution emerges in a context of increasing consideration of Internet-related rights issues at the Human Rights Council. It consolidates some of the key principles that have emerged in the Council in the last two years with regard to the significance of the Internet as a space for the exercise for Human Rights, building namely on the reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and two cross-regional statements.

The objective of the Core Group of countries who proposed this recent Internet Resolution (Sweden, United States, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil and Nigeria) was to have a very high-level text, gathering as much support as possible to reach wide consensus. The Council is a very political arena, and the drafters deliberately avoided including the notion of rights’ limitations (even though some limitations can be exceptionally admitted according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments); indeed, the issue of “balancing” freedom of expression with other rights (e.g. security, social safety, etc.) came up during the drafting session from  a few countries with less embracing approaches to freedom of expression and opinion. This aspect was not included in the final text, but the fact that this was heavily raised during the preparatory discussions is a good illustration of the tensions that can exist in the Council.

Non-governmental organizations have very limited possibilities to influence Human Rights Council processes. However, I took the opportunity to participate in the drafting group sessions and was able to introduce the notion of the “open Internet”, which found its way into the final text of the Resolution (“Recognizes the global and open Internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms”). Non-state actors cannot formally make text propositions, but the suggestion was fortunately picked up by a member state’s delegate during the discussion.

While it is difficult to assess the real-word impact of such a Resolution, it does represent a positive step in recognition of a rights-based Internet with the formal acknowledgement of the applicability of fundamental rights in the online environment. This is timely in a context of increasing pressures to adopt technical measures (e.g. DNS filtering) to advance certain public policy objectives (e.g. security, copyright), sometimes without due regard to individuals’ fundamental rights and outside of judicial oversight.

Other developments at the 20th Human Rights Council have taken the online dimension into consideration and include:

·      The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has issued a new report on the protection of journalists, including a section dedicated to the safety and protection of online journalists. Link to the  report:

·      The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association presented its first thematic report to the Human Rights Council, which includes mention of increased use of the Internet, in particular social media, as a basic tool which enables individuals to organize peaceful assemblies. Link to the report:

·      Finally, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance is also taking into account the Internet as a platform where new forms of racism and xenophobia are taking place, as well as a tool to foster mutual understanding and combat such offenses. Links to these reports:

The main conclusion of the debate so far is that all stakeholders – governments, Internet technical community, civil society, businesses – have a role to play in ensuring that users’ fundamental rights are respected online to the same high standards as in the offline world. While the Internet has shifted empowerment at the edges, ensuring the respect of users’ rights online must remain central.

– Nicolas Seidler 

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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