“Digital rights and the UN”: recent and upcoming UN resolutions

The 26th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) opened this week and there are a number of internet-related human rights issues on the agenda, including a new resolution on promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. (Read our briefing note here.)

The HRC passed its landmark resolution on the internet (resolution 20/8) two years ago. An initiative of Sweden, this resolution attracted 85 co-sponsors from all regions, and affirmed the fundamental principle that the same rights that people enjoy offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression. The resolution: recognized the global and open nature of the internet as a driving force in accelerating progress towards development; called upon all to promote and facilitate access to the internet; encouraged U.N. special rapporteurs to take internet issues into account within their existing mandates; and decided to continue its consideration of internet-related human rights issues.  

There was no follow up resolution on the internet resolution last year, in part because in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, any discussion of the internet and human rights was too politicized and polarized. Nonetheless, over the last two years, there has been a steady growth in references to internet issues in U.N. resolutions, adding more weight to the notion that internet rights are human rights.

Freedom of expression, and beyond

Since the adoption of resolution 20/8, which focuses on freedom of expression, the HRC has passed a number resolutions reaffirming that human rights must be protected online with a broader scope. For example, resolution 21/16 and 24/5 on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association reminds  “States of their obligation to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, online as well as offline.”

HRC resolution 22/6 on protecting human rights defenders recognizes “new forms of communication, including the dissemination of information online and offline, can serve as important tools for human rights defenders.”  Resolution 23/2 on the role of freedom of opinion and expression in women’s empowerment calls upon all States to “promote, respect and ensure women’s exercise of freedom of opinion and expression, both online and offline, including as members of non-governmental organizations and other associations.” HRC resolutions on the safety of journalists and civil society space also consider the internet-related dimensions of these issues.

Towards universal recognition

Another notable trend is that recognition of internet rights has extended from the HRC, which has only 47 members, to the U.N. General Assembly, which is a universal body with all governments of the world represented on equal footing. In its 68th session, which is still in session, UNGA has passed at least five resolutions that, to varying extents, reinforce human rights online.

Perhaps most prominent among the internet-related resolutions was the 2013 resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age (68/167) an initiative of Brazil and Germany, which aimed to address the issue of mass surveillance in the wake of the Snowden revelations. The resolution asserted that “unlawful or arbitrary surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as unlawful or arbitrary collection of personal data, [are] highly intrusive acts, [that] violate the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression and may contradict the tenets of a democratic society. It also echoed the HRC resolutions with respect to the application of human rights online and the global and open nature of the internet, called on all governments to take a number of steps to respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of digital communication, and requested the High Commissioner on Human Rights to draft a report the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or the interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data, including on a mass scale

Another controversial resolution passed at UNGA late last year, related to women human rights defenders (68/181). After tough negotiations, the resolution managed to voice growing concern on critical elements of violence against women online, including “technology-related violations, abuses, discrimination and violence against women, including women human rights defenders, such as online harassment, cyberstalking, violation of privacy, censorship and the hacking of e-mail accounts, mobile phones and other electronic devices. The resolution called upon governments to prevent violations and abuses against human rights defenders, including through practical steps to prevent threats, harassment and violence against women human rights defenders, including online abuses.

UNGA also produced resolution 68/163 on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, which acknowledges the online aspects of journalism. The resolution closely echoed the HRC resolution on the same issue, elevating it in stature within the UN system.

From human rights to cybersecurity and development

The abovementioned resolutions all originated from the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which is logical, as it is the relevant UNGA committee for human rights. Perhaps more remarkable then is that this UNGA session has also seen two resolutions originating from other committees that recognize that human rights apply online.

UNGA’s First Committee, which deals with disarmament issues, has passed an annual resolution for the past few years dealing with “developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security,”,or cybersecurity. This year’s resolution (68/243) for the first time noted

the importance of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the use of information and communications technologies.” This language is not as strong as that coming out of the specialized human rights institutions, but it is nonetheless progress that in the context of cybersecurity, the importance of human rights in ICTs is being acknowledged.

Likewise, an annual resolution on information and communications technology for development (ICT4D) coming from UNGA’s Second Committee, which deals with economic and social issues, combined the language of the cybersecurity and privacy resolutions. The resolution (68/198), noted “the importance of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the use of information and communications technologies, and reaffirm[ed] that the same rights people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy, as set out in its resolution entitled “The right to privacy in the digital age”.”

From norm building to implementation

The increasingly common references to internet rights in international fora signals that the application of human rights standards online is an emerging norm, if not already accepted by all parties. Just like offline rights, internet rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. Therefore, governments should not favor freedom of expression over privacy, for example, in the name of political convenience. Likewise it is encouraging to see that the upcoming internet resolution at the HRC will likely include important aspects of economic, social, and cultural rights.

Of course, a significant challenge of the international human rights regime is the gap in enforcement mechanisms. The lack of accountability and protections against abuses is even more challenging in the digital age: jurisdictional issues and the role of the private sector bring additional complications into play when considering internet rights. Therefore, while it is encouraging to see the U.N. elevating internet and human rights issues in front of the international community, these issues must also continue to be discussed outside of the intergovernmental system in such a way that addresses the unique challenges of the digital age.

For a list of internet-related resolutions at the HRC and UNGA, see: https://www.accessnow.org/wp-content/uploads/archive/docs/List_of_UN_HRC_Resolutions.pdf

For more background on UN resolutions and the internet, see: http://www.apc.org/en/blog/united-nations-resolutions-recognising-human-rights