Nauru in hot seat as U.N. decries internet blocking, clampdown on free expression

Today countries around the world urged the small island state of Nauru to restore access to social media and support free expression. Delivered in a session at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the recommendations — presented by official delegations from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Timor Leste, among others — represent a sharp rebuke after Nauru clamped down on free expression over the past year, including blocking Facebook. In a separate action, Access Now delivered our petition to the government of Nauru signed by more than 5,000 people calling on the government to restore full access to the internet.

Nauru is a small island state, but what happens there matters to the world. Free expression is vital for the vulnerable asylum seekers on the island, as well as the ability to seek, receive, and impart information through the internet. As the world grapples with increased migration flows, the internet will continue to serve as a crucial means to uphold human rights.

The Universal Periodic Review process of the U.N. Human Rights Council reviews the human rights record of each U.N. member country every four and a half years. The Nauru government recently made it a criminal offense for anyone to make a statement that “coerces, intimidates, harasses, or causes emotional distress to a person” if the statement is “likely to threaten national defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health.” This vague and broad standard could send people to jail for what they say on- or offline.

Nauru operates an immigration detention center, funded by the Australian government, for people seeking asylum in Australia. Men, women, and children are held at the center — sometimes in abusive conditions — while authorities decide whether to grant them full refugee protection and resettlement on Nauru, Papua New Guinea, or Cambodia, but not Australia, the country they are seeking asylum in. Without the internet, asylum seekers in Nauru are losing vital connections to loved ones, colleagues, and family that internet services can provide, which could impact their efforts to get asylum.

In May, Access Now joined leading rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Refugee Council of Australia, International Service for Human Rights, and PEN International in a letter calling on the government to restore full internet access to the island as well as free expression. The petition we delivered today underscored these concerns, and we were thrilled that our members spoke out on such an important issue.

Nauru deserves recognition for participating in the UPR process, and we hope the country will fulfill the recommendations made by the Human Rights Council. Nauru will now have the opportunity to respond to the official recommendations within the next few months during a plenary session at the Human Rights Council.