People's Stories Freedom

Digital rights key to inclusive and resilient world
by UN Office for Human Rights
As the world rebuilds civic space during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, UN experts stress that human rights apply online, as offline, and digital rights must be a top priority.
"Despite the instrumental role of the internet and digital technologies, which have provided new avenues for the exercise of public freedoms and access to health and related information and care in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, States continue to leverage these technologies to muzzle dissent, surveil, and quash online and offline collective action and the tech companies have done too little to avert such abuse of human rights," the experts said.
"We are deeply concerned that these patterns of abuse, which have further accelerated under the exigencies of the pandemic, will continue and exacerbate inequalities worldwide."
"We need to act together to embrace the fast-pace expansion of digital space and technological solutions that are safe, inclusive and rights-based," nine U.N. human rights experts* said ahead of the annual RightsCon summit on human rights in the digital age from June 7-11.
COVID-19 recovery efforts to "build back better" must address serious threats contributing to the closing of civic space and suppression of free speech and media freedom, the experts said, along with ongoing global crises such as systemic violence, climate change, structural inequality, institutional racism, and gender-based violence.
They specifically pointed to internet shutdowns during peaceful protests, digital divides and accessibility barriers including to basic human rights and services, disinformation and misinformation; attacks independent and diverse media; algorithmic discrimination, online threats against human rights defenders, mass and targeted surveillance, cyberattacks and attempts to undermine encryption.
The experts said the pandemic had particularly heightened digital inequalities and discrimination against, among others: people of African descent, ethnic groups, minority groups and communities facing religious, and ethnic discrimination, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, internally displaced people, people affected by extreme poverty, women and girls, migrants and refugees, LGBTQ+, gender diverse persons, human rights and environmental defenders, journalists and activists, worldwide.
They also raised concern about ongoing repression of peaceful protests around the world and an unprecedented spike in reports of child sexual abuse material online.
The experts stressed that States — and the tech sector — must take additional systemic measures so that their efforts reach those who are most at risk of being disproportionately affected. Platforms must be inclusive through engaging people in the ground and improving their investments in least developed countries. "We must leave no one behind — online or offline," they said.
The experts reiterated the need for States to maintain their positive obligation to promote and protect human rights, including through rights-respecting regulations on tech companies. Initiatives to regulate online spaces need to be participatory and fully grounded in human rights standards.
Businesses need to uphold their responsibility to respect human rights, including by reviewing their business models, and be held accountable for acts of digital repression, such as the non-transparent content takedowns and manipulation recently witnessed in various regions of the world.
"The opacity that prevails in the ways content is moderated by Governments and companies reinforces global perceptions of discrimination, inefficiency and censorship. There is an urgent need for transparency", stressed the experts.
The experts further called on companies to stop supplying governments with technologies — such as spyware tools and applications claiming to recognise faces, genders, disabilities and emotions — which reinforce risks for defenders and civil society actors when exercising their legitimate right to voice critical concerns and defend human rights.
Businesses need to prevent and address these risks and avoid contributing consciously or inadvertently to further shrinking civic space.
The experts also cautioned against the repurposing of security and counter-terrorism measures, specifically the use of new technologies, data collection, surveillance and biometric technologies to securitise health and regulate a health pandemic whose effects are most severely felt by minority and groups at heightened risk.
They demanded that already controversial public-private security partnerships be subjected to additional scrutiny when leveraged into the public health arena.
The experts reiterated that "only with concerted multilateral efforts to restore solidarity and mutual trust, will we overcome the pandemic while becoming more resilient and united".
They also warned particularly against using the pandemic as an excuse to rush forward "digital transformation", as exemplified in digital vaccine certificates, without prioritising foundational digital rights safeguards.
During the summit, the UN human rights experts will discuss a range of issues such as: "When States of Emergency Collide; Internet shutdowns during peaceful protest, the digitalization of welfare systems, which may lead to excluding beneficiaries based even on minor or inconsequential irregularities and to increased targeting, with potential negative impacts on people in poverty; "Making the Right Impact: Human Rights Compliant AI"; disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression, gender justice and freedom of expression.

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Bodily autonomy: Busting 7 myths that undermine individual rights and freedoms
by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
Apr. 2021
Nearly half of all women are denied their bodily autonomy, according to data from 57 countries, UNFPA’s flagship report announced today. The 2021 State of World Population report, titled My Body is My Own, marks the first time a United Nations report focuses on the power and agency of individuals to make choices about their bodies without fear, violence or coercion.
The report examines data on women’s decision-making power and on laws supportive of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Tragically, only 55 per cent of women have bodily autonomy, according to measurements of their ablity to make their own decisions on issues relating to health care, contraception and whether to have sex.
The report also highlights the legal, economic and social barriers to securing bodily autonomy for all.
Twenty countries or territories, for example, have “marry your rapist” laws that allow perpetrators to escape punishment if they marry their victims, codifying the denial of autonomy experienced by survivors of rape.
But some of the most persistent barriers to bodily autonomy involve stereotypes, assumptions and misconceptions about bodily autonomy and the rights of women and girls.
“The few people who have heard of bodily autonomy associate it with negative ideas,” said Romeo Alejandro Mendez Zuniga, a youth educator in Guatemala who was interviewed in the report, “because it affects the patriarchal male chauvinist system.”
Below are seven common myths about bodily autonomy and why we must abandon these misconceptions once and for all.
Myth 1: Bodily autonomy is a Western concept.
Bodily autonomy is about the right to make decisions over one’s own life and future. It is about being empowered to make informed choices. These are universal values.
Governments everywhere have committed, in a variety of international agreements, to protecting autonomy. Respect for autonomy is a core tenet of international medical ethics. And we must not overlook the incredible efforts to secure bodily autonomy being led by advocates all over the world.
Myth 2: There is no right to bodily autonomy.
Marginalized communities, such as indigenous people, often face heightened barriers to realizing their bodily autonomy. This could take the form of vulnerability to violence, lack accurate sexual and reproductive health information or poor access to health services.
Not only is bodily autonomy a human right, it is the foundation upon which other human rights are built.
It is included, implicitly or explicitly, in many international rights agreements, such as the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Myth 3: Bodily autonomy represents radical individualism; it undermines group decision-making.
Collective decision-making is common across cultures, societies and governments. But group decisions cannot circumscribe the rights of individuals. This is the case with all Marginalized communities, such as indigenous people, often face heightened barriers to realizing their bodily autonomy. This could take the form of vulnerability to violence, lack accurate sexual and reproductive health information or poor access to health services.
In fact, the realization of individual bodily autonomy actually requires collective action. Communities and advocates must come together to dismantle the norms, laws and practices that deprive individuals of autonomy.
Myth 4: One person’s bodily autonomy could end up undermining the autonomy of others.
Having bodily autonomy does not mean any person gets to undermine the health, rights or autonomy of others. Individuals have the right to choose whether to have sex or get pregnant, for example, but they are not entitled to impose these choices on others. No one has the right to violate the rights, autonomy or bodily integrity of anyone else.
Myth 5: Some groups of people are not entitled to bodily autonomy.
Rights are for everyone, full stop. That includes bodily autonomy. Throughout history, we have seen many people – including women, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable populations – denied their fundamental human rights. They were told, in ways big and small, that they lacked the capacity or privilege to make choices for themselves. These abuses continue today.
Persons with disabilities, for example, are frequently denied their right to accessible sexual and reproductive health information and services. They are too often denied protection from violence; girls and boys with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, with girls at the greatest risk. Some are even subjected to forced sterilization. People in detention may be subjected to rape or denial of health care.
Young people, too, are often considered incapable of making sexual and reproductive health decisions. Sometimes this means parents make life-altering choices for them, like marrying them off before they reach adulthood. This has to stop.
Guardians have a clear obligation to make responsible decisions in the best interest of their children.
Additionally, international agreements respect the rights of older adolescents to participate in important matters affecting them.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes the evolving capacities of children approaching adulthood, and calls for them to be supported with information, guidance and health care that empowers them to participate meaningfully in choices about their bodies and futures.
Myth 6: Bodily autonomy undermines traditions and religions.
Bodily autonomy is not simply about sexual choices and reproduction. It is about a person’s whole self, their dreams and potential in life. Most traditions and religions create space for individuals to explore their own conscience on such deeply personal matters as how to protect their health, whether to start a family and how to chart their future. These choices can be – and often are – guided by religious leaders and cultural teachings.
Myth 7: Bodily autonomy is just another women’s issue.
Any concern affecting the welfare of half of humanity cannot be dismissed as a “women’s issue”. But bodily autonomy does not simply affect women. Every individual should be empowered to claim their bodily autonomy. This includes men, women, boys and girls and people of diverse sexual orientations. It includes people of all races, faiths, nationalities and disability status.
People of all genders can experience reproductive coercion – behaviors that interfere with the reproductive choices of others – and even rape.
As is the case with achieving gender equality, the realization of bodily autonomy will fortify the welfare of all people, men and boys included.

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