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Digital rights key to inclusive and resilient world
by UN Office for Human Rights, agencies
As the world rebuilds civic space during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, UN human rights 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.
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 on 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, sexual minoritiy groups, human rights and environmental defenders, journalists and activists, worldwide.
They also raised concern about ongoing repression of peaceful protests around the world. Along with ongoing global crises such as systemic violence, climate change, structural inequality, institutional racism, and gender-based violence. They expressed alarm at the 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 on 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 and censorship. There is an urgent need for transparency", stressed the experts.
The experts 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 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 and become more resilient and united".
They warned against using the pandemic as an excuse to rush forward "digital transformation", as exemplified in digital vaccine certificates, without prioritising foundational digital rights safeguards.
The rights experts highlighted the increasing digitalization of welfare systems, which may lead to excluding beneficiaries based on minor or inconsequential irregularities and to increased targeting, with potential negative impacts on people in poverty.
* The experts: Fionnuala Ní Aoláin,Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Clément Voule , Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Olivier De Schutter , Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights ;David R. Boyd,Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment; Gerard Quinn,Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Tlaleng Mofokeng , Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Irene Khan , Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mary Lawlor ,Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Dante Pesce (Chairperson), Surya Deva (Vice-Chairperson), Elżbieta Karska, Githu Muigai, and Anita Ramasastry, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights
June 2021
Free media, digital literacy an antidote to disinformation, by Irene Khan - Special Rapporteur on right to freedom of opinion and expression
Responses by States and companies to disinformation have been problematic, inadequate and detrimental to human rights, a UN expert warned today, calling on States to uphold the right to freedom of expression as the primary means by which to fight disinformation.
“Diverse and reliable information, digital literacy, smart social media regulation and free, independent and diverse media are the obvious antidote to disinformation,” Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, told the Human Rights Council.
“Disinformation - responses to it - are undermining freedom of expression, polarizing public debates, fueling public distrust and endangering human rights, democratic institutions, public health and sustainable development,” said Khan.
“States have resorted to disproportionate measures such as Internet shutdowns and vague and overly broad laws to criminalize, block, censor and chill online speech and shrink civic space, and to compel social media platforms to remove lawful content without judicial process.”
In her report, the Special Rapporteur warned that these measures are incompatible with international law and are being used against journalists, political opponents and human rights defenders with impunity.
She said algorithms, targeted advertising and the data harvesting practices of the largest social media companies are largely credited with driving users towards “extremist” content and conspiracy theories, undermining the right of individuals to form an opinion and to freely develop beliefs and ideas.
“Company responses to disinformation have been largely reactive, insufficient and opaque,” said Khan. “Social media companies should review their business models and ensure that their business operations, data collection and data processing practices are compliant with international human rights standards,” said the Special Rapporteur.
Khan also expressed concerns about inconsistent content moderation, opaque policies and processes and inadequate transparency and redress mechanisms of social media platforms, and called for urgent and effective action by companies.
She warned that “old ingrained sexist attitudes with the anonymity and reach of social media” were being used to launch gendered disinformation campaigns against women journalists, politicians and human rights defenders to push them out of public life. She called on States and companies to ensure the safety of women online and offline.
Calling for the proactive engagement of States, companies, international organizations, civil society and the media, Irene Khan concluded, “Tackling disinformation requires multidimensional multi-stakeholder responses that are well-grounded in the full range of human rights.”
* Access the report:

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The people of Myanmar roundly view the military junta as illegitimate
by Thomas Andrews
Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
July 2021
Statement by Thomas Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar to the United Nations Human Rights Council:
In the five months since the government of Myanmar was overthrown in an illegal coup, two interlocking patterns have emerged:
First, the military junta’s widespread, systematic attacks against the people of Myanmar, acts that amount to crimes against humanity. And second, the inability of the international community to do what is required to stop it.
The first of these patterns is painfully clear and has been accurately described by the High Commissioner in her statement.
The junta’s military forces have murdered approximately 900 people; forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands; tortured many, including torturing people in custody to death; disappeared untold numbers; and arbitrarily detained nearly 6,000.
The junta continues to stifle freedom of expression, arbitrarily detain thousands, and systematically strip away due process and fair trial rights. It is using criminal defamation charges to target journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society leaders.
It has also cut off food, water and medicine to those who have been displaced by its brutal attacks on entire villages. The junta has also taken family members hostage when its forces are unable to find those with outstanding arrest warrants.
Authorities recently imprisoned a four-year-old child, for example, when they could not locate her father for arrest. A four-year-old child… And now the junta has begun detaining lawyers for defending their detained clients.
On top of this, a third wave of COVID is taking hold in the country. Limited testing shows an alarming positivity rate of 26 percent. One in four of those tested have tested positive to this highly contagious disease.
The public health system is in tatters and many are unwilling to get vaccinated in a junta-run operation. Myanmar is at grave risk of becoming a Covid 19 super-spreader state, impacting untold numbers of people both inside and outside of its borders.
Despite facing lethal force, people across Myanmar continue to vigorously oppose the junta and demand that it end its attempted coup.
I use “attempted coup” deliberately here. The junta captured many levers of state power, the purse strings of Myanmar’s Treasury and the administrative offices, but it has not - not even close - taken control of the nation and its people.
The people of Myanmar roundly view the junta as illegitimate and, indeed, a terrorist scourge set loose upon them.
Civil servants continue en masse to refuse to work for the junta. Boycotts of military-produced goods and services continue. And support for the opposition leadership, the National Unity Government, is widespread.
The National Unity Government —established by parliamentarians whom the junta illegally denied the right to form a government—is laying the groundwork for a new, unified Myanmar. It has taken the historic step of welcoming the Rohingya ethnic minority back into the national fabric of Myanmar, assuring them justice and full citizenship rights.
The National Unity Government is helping to coordinate humanitarian assistance into the country and has committed to ensuring international justice and accountability for victims of atrocity crimes, indicating its willingness to pursue justice through the International Criminal Court. The National Unity Government deserves to be embraced as a valuable resource and partner by member states.
Some in Myanmar have lost hope that help from the international community will be forthcoming and have instead sought to defend themselves through the formation of defense forces and acts of sabotage, while some are reportedly targeting suspected junta collaborators and officials.
This trend could escalate quickly and the junta’s pattern of the use of grossly disproportionate force in response will likely lead to an even greater loss of life.
The people of Myanmar are working to save their country. But they desperately need the support of the international community before it is too late.
Which leads me back to the second pattern: the failure of those outside of Myanmar to take measures that could help end this nightmare.
Bodies of the UN, including the General Assembly, Security Council, and the Human Rights Council, have met to discuss developments and issue statements or resolutions.
Last month, 119 member nations of the General Assembly voted for a resolution calling upon the junta to “respect the will of the people” as expressed in the November 2020 elections and called upon “all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.”
We have watched as the junta has made a mockery of efforts by ASEAN to resolve the crisis. But we are also seeing evidence of the junta’s growing insecurity and sensitivity to world opinion.
The junta is relentlessly trying to stop the truth from emerging through social media, including the confiscation of mobile phones to search for evidence of support for the opposition; arresting journalists and even threatening those who call them what they are, a military junta.
They are now even using the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to deliver their twisted version of events to the world.
Some nations have decided to act by imposing sanctions to reduce the junta’s access to revenue and weapons. While these measures are important and welcomed, they remain limited and without the coordination necessary to have significant impact.
Five months ago, before this very Council, I called for the formation of an Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar. I based this recommendation on the necessity for action and the idea that governments that are willing to take action should do so even if others are not.
Over the last five months, we have witnessed what happens when there is a lack of strong, coordinated international action. We therefore know with virtual certainty that if the international community continues its current course, things will continue to deteriorate for the people of Myanmar.
I believe it is time to try another way. An Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar – nations willing to stand with the people of Myanmar through meaningful, coordinated action – would be in a position to impose significant costs on the junta.
It could reduce the junta’s ability to attack its citizens, save the lives of those in acute crisis, and gain political leverage so that the crisis in Myanmar might come to a just and permanent conclusion.
There are viable options that such a coalition would have to achieve these goals:
First and foremost, an Emergency Coalition could significantly reduce the revenue that the junta needs to continue its reign of terror.
The junta prides itself on its large, well-equipped military. But what they see as a source of strength, indeed the only reason they are able to hold the people of Myanmar hostage, is also a vulnerability.
It takes considerable revenue to supply, equip and sustain that military. Cut off their income, and you cut off their capacity to continue their relentless attack on the people of Myanmar.
Since the coup, some countries have instituted sanctions, targeting military-controlled enterprises and revenue from gems, timber, and mining. Two countries sanctioned the so-called State Administrative Council, the junta itself.
These are important steps. But the fact remains that many nations have yet to impose any economic sanctions, and a key sector remains untouched by all: oil and gas. Oil and gas-sector revenues are a financial lifeline for the junta and are estimated to be close to what is needed for the junta to maintain the security forces that are keeping them in power. They should be stopped.
Second, an Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar could outlaw the export of arms to the Myanmar military, as called for in last month’s General Assembly resolution.
Third, coalition members that have universal jurisdiction laws could coordinate investigations of these ongoing crimes and make preparations to file charges against Myanmar’s senior security officials.
Fourth, coalition members could dramatically increase humanitarian aid by working with the National Unity Government to utilize non-junta channels to assure that aid goes to where it belongs – to the people of Myanmar. And, finally,
Fifth, the coalition could work together to deny any claims of legitimacy that the junta may try to assert, such as the false claim that they are recognized by the United Nations.
These actions are all possible but they require nations that are prepared to act to do so through collaboration outside of formal mechanisms that require consensus. Frankly, consensus decision-making has meant paralysis, and paralysis is lethal to the people of Myanmar.
There is no guarantee that this approach will succeed, but there is overwhelming evidence that the current path leads to even greater impunity, a humanitarian disaster, and a failed state.
Future generations may look back upon this moment and ask: “Did the people and nations of the world do all that they reasonably could to help the people of Myanmar in their hour of great peril and need?” I am afraid that the honest answer to that question, at this point, is no. The international community is failing the people of Myanmar.
There is time to set a new course and achieve a just outcome. Now, more than ever, we must summon the courage of the people of Myanmar and choose the path of meaningful and sustained action. Time is short and the stakes could not be higher.

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