Your digital rights at the United Nations: Human Rights Council 34th session

With the Human Rights Council’s first regular session of the year starting today, we’ve partnered with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to issue a joint review of issues under discussion.

Digital rights remain a priority for the 34th session (“HRC34”), which runs today through March 24th, 2017 in Geneva.

The session takes place in the context of reports that the Trump administration is considering pulling the U.S. out of the HRC. At the same time, Access Now and other human rights organizations have asked U.N. experts to investigate reports that the U.S. is demanding that foreign travelers hand over their passwords for social media accounts and personal devices at the border. 

Notably, in this session the HRC plans to discuss the report of Joseph Cannataci, the special rapporteur on the right to privacy, regarding the oversight of government surveillance programs, and debate a new resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age.

Cannataci reports that there have been no improvements in the past year on the status of the right to privacy in the surveillance sector. He also makes a strong case for using reasonable suspicion and not citizenship as the basis for targeted surveillance, arguing that territoriality is not material in fundamental rights determinations. “Surveillance activities, regardless of whether they are directed towards foreigners or citizens, must only be carried out in compliance with fundamental human rights such as privacy,” he writes.

The HRC will also review reports by High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and Ben Emmerson, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism. Both reports explore an array of digital rights concerns associated with countering violent extremism (see our human rights guidance on this issue).

The High Commissioner’s report explores best practices and major challenges in confronting the negative effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In his report, Emmerson welcomes court rulings finding that legislation requiring mandatory retention of data -– whether metadata, traffic data, location data, or otherwise –- fails to comply with European law. Specifically, he lauds the European Court of Human Rights finding that blanket retention mandates are not grounded in “reasonable suspicion,” and fall short of the international human rights law test for proportionate measures. Likewise, he welcomes rulings in the U.S., U.K., and Germany against indiscriminate collection and analysis of data without proportionality, foreseeability, or imminence.

Digital rights will feature prominently in the Universal Periodic Review outcomes for the following states: the Republic of Moldova, Togo, Uganda, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

For more details, check out our full joint review with APC here. You can also follow discussions online through the hashtag #HRC34.