UN Human Rights Council Calls for Promotion of Human Rights and Internet Freedom

Joachim Ruecker
President, United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council has condemned all human rights violations and abuses committed against persons for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the Internet and called on governments to ensure accountability and effective remedies in accordance with their international obligations. 

Specifically, the  Council requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to study the trend in Internet shutdowns, analyse their causes, legal implications and impact on a range of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, through robust consultations with stakeholders and also refer to previous reports, before presenting a detailed report at its forthcoming fiftieth session. 

It emphasized the Secretary-General’s call for Member States to place human rights at the centre of regulatory frameworks and legislation on the development and use of digital technologies, and for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop a system-wide guidance on human rights due diligence and impact assessments in the use of new technologies.

The  Council also advised the  Office of the High Commissioner to continue to work on the application of human rights to the conception, design, use, development and further deployment of new and emerging digital technologies with a view to assisting business enterprises, including technology companies, with developing and applying human rights due diligence processes, and to assist governments, upon their request, in developing human rights-based laws and policies for new and emerging digital technologies, including through human rights education and close consultation with civil society and business enterprises, especially technology companies;

In a resolution (A/HRC/47/L.22) on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, adopted by a vote of 43 in favour and 4 abstentions, the Council cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and other relevant international human rights instruments to buttress its call and urged governments globally to adhere in the interest of the citizenry.

It referred to resolution 17/4 of 16 June 2011 which encourages governments and technology companies to implement the guiding principles in order to foster respect for human rights online and offline in the context of new and emerging digital technologies and human rights due diligence processes.

It acknowledged the fact that new and emerging digital technologies holds great potential for strengthening democratic institutions and the resilience of civil society, empowering civic engagement and enabling the work of human rights defenders, public participation and the open and free exchange of ideas.

The Human Rights Council also emphasized the importance of ensuring appropriate safeguards and human oversight in the application of new and emerging digital technologies, and of respecting and promoting human rights in national, regional and international regulatory frameworks and legislation and on the conception, design, use, development, further deployment and impact assessments of new and emerging digital technologies, while ensuring the meaningful participation of all relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, academia and civil society.

It commendedthe report of the Advisory Committee on the possible impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights.

While recognizing the potential of emerging digital technologies to accelerate human progress and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, to bridge digital divides, it called for due attention to the rights of persons with disabilities and those in vulnerable situations, the advancement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, to ensure that no one is left behind in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It however acknowledged the risks that new and emerging digital technologies may have for the protection, promotion and enjoyment of human rights, including but not limited to the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, the right to an effective remedy and the right to privacy, in accordance with States’ obligations under international human rights law.

In particular, it said that the outbreak of the  coronavirus disease (COVID-19) demonstrated the increased need to harness the positive potential of new and emerging digital technologies and address the key challenges involved, including the impacts of COVID-19 response measures, such as Internet shutdowns, censorship, and unlawful and arbitrary surveillance not in accordance with States’ obligations under international human rights law and inconsistent with the principles of necessity, proportionality and legality.

The Council also cautioned on theneed to address  the spread of disinformation, which can be designed to incite to violence, hatred, discrimination  and  hostility,  inter  alia,  racism,  xenophobia,  negative  stereotyping  and stigmatization.

It thereafter highlighted the prompt need for a human rights-based approach to new and emerging digital technologies taking into account the   obligations of states under international human rights law as well as a holistic understanding of technology and governance and regulatory efforts.

Governments, the private sector, international organizations, civil society, journalists and media workers, the technical and academic communities and all relevant stakeholders  were therefore urged to be cognizant of the impact, opportunities and challenges of the rapid technological change on the promotion and protection of human rights, and recognize the need  for  an enabling environment for civil society and national human rights institutions to contribute to raising awareness about the interrelatedness of new and emerging digital technologies and human rights, to promote respect by business enterprises for human rights in line with the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, and to contribute to accountability for human rights abuses,

It noted thatrapid technological change affects governments  in different ways, and that addressing these impacts, which depend on national and regional particularities, governments’ capacities and levels of development, requires international and multi-stakeholder cooperation in order for developing countries and least developed countries, to benefit from opportunities and to address the challenges arising from the change, and to bridge digital divides, while emphasizing that it is the duty of all governments  to promote and protect all human rights, online and offline.