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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions and on freedom of expression

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20 June 2018

Human Rights Council
MORNING 

20 June 2018

Council Hears Statement by its President Responding to the United States’ Decision to Withdraw its Membership from the Council, and Addresses by the President of Slovenia and the Attorney General of Afghanistan

The Human Rights Council this morning held a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.  The Council also heard a statement by its President in response to the decision of the United States to withdraw its membership from the Council, and addresses by the President of Slovenia and the Attorney General of Afghanistan.

Vojislav Šuc, President of the Human Rights Council, said the United States had announced last night its decision to withdraw its membership from the Human Rights Council.  He noted that in times when the value and strength of multilateralism and human rights were being challenged on a daily basis, it was essential to uphold a strong and vibrant Council and recognize it as a central part of the United Nations for the twenty-first century.  He encouraged the United States to reconsider its position and re-engage with the Human Rights Council.

Bulgaria on behalf of the European Union, Australia and China spoke in reaction to the United States’ decision, voicing their disappointment at this decision and reiterating their steadfast commitment to the Council and the principle of multilateralism.  The United Kingdom also commented as part of the interactive dialogue.

Borut Pahor, President of Slovenia, affirmed that existing multilateral structures were vital to maintaining peace and ensuring respect for human rights.  The Council was one of the most important bodies for the promotion and protection of human rights, and its reforms must be reached through constructive dialogue.  He said the Council without the United States was weaker, but the United States’ efforts to promote human rights without the Council were weaker as well.

Mohammad Farid Hamidi, Attorney General of Afghanistan, said that under the leadership of the National Unity Government, a new chapter in human rights had been opened in Afghanistan, and that progress in the field of human rights was possible despite ongoing conflict, including in addressing violence against women and protecting the rights of the child.

Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, presented their reports on Tuesday, 19 June, and a summary of their statements is available here.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Callamard recalled that in her report, she stressed the responsibility of States to protect civilians against non-state armed actors, and noted that the current legal framework to prevent violations by non-state armed actors was simply not working.  

Mr. Kaye, in his concluding remarks, underlined that a great value of the Council was the fact that civil society representatives had a chance to speak up, making the decision of the United States to withdraw even more regretful.  He reiterated the worry about the growing trend by States, including European ones, to censor content prior to its publishing, and stressed the important role of States in ensuring that the freedom of expression was upheld.

El Salvador, Iraq, and Mexico spoke as concerned countries.  National human rights institutions from El Salvador and from Mexico also addressed the Council via video statements.

In the interactive dialogue on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, speakers welcomed the focus on armed non-state actors, including armed opposition groups, insurgents, rebels, terrorists, criminal cartels, or gangs as they represented a pervasive challenge to human rights protection.  Recognizing deficiencies in international law with regards to holding non-state actors accountable for crimes committed in armed conflicts, and stressing that accountability for human rights abuses must always be assured, regardless of who the perpetrators were, many delegations agreed on the need to develop accountability frameworks.  Some speakers took issue with the claim that non-state actors had a responsibility for human rights on the same footing as States and were concerned that the implementation of the report’s recommendations implied the recognition of the legitimacy of existence of those actors which were often in direct opposition to the State itself.  

On the right to freedom of opinion and expression, speakers welcomed that the report addressed the regulation of user-generated online content, and asked about best practices of human rights-centred moderation of such content and what social media companies could do to discourage the presence of racist and xenophobic groups in the online sphere.  Delegations acknowledged the need for radically different approaches to transparency at all stages of operations by information and communication companies and inquired after the proposal to set up an industry-wide accountability mechanism, social media councils.  Several speakers expressed alarm at a trend to use cybercrime legislation as a vehicle for restricting speech or controlling content as they too often curbed online freedom of expression, and noted that in this context, censorship and criminalization of free speech online were major challenges.  Others disagreed with the concept of absolute freedom of expression on the Internet, and insisted that sovereign States had the right to regulate online companies and maintain national security in cyber space.

Speaking in the clustered interactive dialogue were Germany on behalf of a group of countries on the right to privacy, European Union, Latvia on behalf of a group of countries, Peru on behalf of a group of countries, Togo on behalf of the African Group, Belgium, Pakistan, Montenegro, Poland, France, Brazil, Iraq, Croatia, Egypt, Australia, Switzerland, Chile, Netherlands, Sudan, Paraguay, Iran, Botswana, Greece, Tunisia, Albania, Venezuela, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, South Africa, Uruguay, Latvia, China, Honduras, Russia, Cuba, Ireland, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Philippines, Austria, Maldives, United Kingdom, and Afghanistan.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: International Federation of Journalists, Verein Sudwind Entwisklungspolitik, World Organisation Against Torture (in a joint statement with Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia), Alliance Defending Freedom, Lutheran World Federation (in a joint statement with ACT Alliance - Action by Churches Together), Article 19 - International Centre against Censorship, Women’s Human Rights International Association, Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez, Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (in a joint statement with Amnesty International; Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia and International Federation for Human Rights Leagues), British Humanist Association Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia, International Commission of Jurists, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.


The Council will next hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.


Statements by Concerned Countries

El Salvador, speaking as a concerned country, said that all assistance had been provided to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions during her visit, meetings had been carried out with local- and national-level stakeholders, and Ms. Callamard had visited detention centres.  Meetings had also been held with human rights institutions, religious leaders and journalists.  El Salvador was informed of the report on the visit and it had submitted its observations.  El Salvador was fully committed and undertook every effort to ensure that human rights principles were implemented.  In line with this, an open-ended standing invitation had been issued to the Special Procedures.  Members of the Council were thanked for their trust in El Salvador.  Concerning the section of the report that stated that young people were joining gangs as a widespread practice, El Salvador noted that particular efforts had been undertaken to include young people in society, particularly those coming from vulnerable groups.  General statements, not backed by data or statistics, did not portray a real picture of El Salvador which had 262 municipalities with varying levels of development.  The rehabilitation programme for detainees was in place.  Special Procedures had to be viewed as mechanisms that improved the situation of human rights.

Procuraduria para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, in a video statement, said that El Salvador had not overcome violence committed over the years by both State and non-state armed actors.  Violence had been growing over the years and the overall situation was deteriorating.  National civil police and armed forces had been very heavy handed and had used excessive force.  Law enforcement members engaged in extrajudicial killings, mostly against members of gangs. The Government had undertaken efforts to punish perpetrators, however, a lot remained to be done, as the situation remained grave.  El Salvador was urged to prevent extrajudicial killings and fully protect victims.  

Iraq, speaking as a concerned country, said that the final report had been issued only this morning, making it a violation as Iraq had not been able to read it in advance.  Violence occurring in Iraq was not part of an armed conflict, according to the definition from the Geneva Conventions.  The efforts of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in documenting crimes were praised.  What the Special Rapporteur described as reprisals by the Government during the operation to liberate certain areas was unfounded, as the Government had been seeking to protect civilians during liberation of Mosul.  It had been a heroic battle.  All reports testified of the humanity of Iraqi forces.  It was true that people had been killed, but the figures in the report had been exaggerated.  

Daesh had carried out reprisals against civilians and government investigations had covered all of the allegations.  However, Daesh used government uniforms while carrying out reprisals against civilians.  Concerning the anti-terrorism act, Iraq was acting in line with international law.  Procedural guarantees on capital punishment were in line with international standards and the execution of such punishment was in line with crimes committed.  Iraq had been facing tremendous security challenges.  It had been fighting terrorism on behalf of the international community, so it could not be considered a country which was operating in normal circumstances.  

Mexico, speaking as a concerned country, agreed that there were serious security challenges, including attacks on journalists.  During the visit, in addition to Mexico City, four other states were visited - Guerrero, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Sinaloa, where major security challenges were faced.  Meetings were held with national human rights mechanisms, and different institutions on both local and central levels.  Various institutions had informed the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression on their ongoing efforts to defend freedom of expression.  In May 2017, the President of the Republic had announced the establishment of mechanisms to protect human rights defenders and the Special Prosecutor’s Office now dealt with crimes against freedom of expression.  The Special Rapporteur had had the chance to see how the mechanisms for the protection of 660 human rights defenders were working so far.  Mexico’s readiness to continue working with the Special Rapporteur was reiterated.  There were challenges in regulating online content and companies needed to apply human rights standards.  Freedom of expression had to be protected and transparency had to be improved at the government and business levels.

Comision Nacional de los derechos Humanos de Mexico, in a video statement, said that the recommendations of the report would be instrumental in raising the visibility of freedom of expression.  Freedom of expression faced a serious crisis in Mexico due to security challenges, as evidenced by the assassination of 136 journalists, including 15 women, and 52 attacks on media premises.  According to a report of the National Human Rights Commission, 90 per cent of offences went unpunished.  In 2017, the Federal Government had undertaken measures to reduce the number of attacks on journalists.  In 2018, six journalists had lost their lives and there had been no positive results so far.  The National Human Rights Commission recently drafted a report on procurement in public advertisement and it would launch a campaign against violence.  The Government was called to implement realistic measures.

Interactive Dialogue

Germany, speaking on behalf of a core group of States on the right to privacy, stressed that the right to privacy enabled the enjoyment of a number of other rights as well as civil and political participation of individuals, and asked the Special Rapporteur to share some best practices of moderation of user-generated online content putting human rights at the centre.  European Union underlined that accountability for human rights violations and abuses must always be assured regardless of who the perpetrators were and asked how the proposed specialised human rights court to try non-State actors for human rights violations could function.  The European Union took note of Mr. Kaye’s recommendations that information and communication technology companies embark on radically different approaches to transparency at all stages of their operations and inquired about meaningful transparency with regards to content moderation.

Latvia welcomed on behalf of a group of countries the report on summary and arbitrary executions and asked what could be the role of the Human Rights Council in addressing the conclusions of the report.  With regard to freedom of expression, Latvia agreed that information and communication technology companies should moderate the content on platforms in line with human rights law, and asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on his proposal to set up an industry-wide accountability mechanism, social media councils.  Peru recognized on behalf of a group of countries that freedom of expression online could only be restricted by governments if the criteria of legality, necessity and proportionality were met.  

Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, stressed the critical importance of unhindered access to the Internet and asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on the balance between exercising the right to freedom of expression online and the need to prevent incitement to hatred.  Belgium was alarmed by the trend to use cybercrime legislation as a vehicle for restricting speech or controlling content as they too often curbed online freedom of expression; censorship and criminalization of free speech online were major challenges.  Belgium recognized that international humanitarian law was constantly evolving and agreed with the Special Rapporteur on the need to develop a framework to hold non-State actors accountable for crimes they committed in armed conflicts.

Pakistan said the free and independent media was an important pillar in Pakistan, and was playing a role in streamlining human rights.  The Government knew that non-state actors posed threats to security.  However, in certain territories, those fighting for self-determination could not be classified as terrorists.  Montenegro remained firmly committed to intensifying efforts towards creating an environment of unhindered enjoyment of freedom of expression.  Montenegro stressed the importance of binding non-state armed groups to human rights obligations and strengthening the role of stakeholders to improve compliance by those groups with the law.  Poland shared the belief that private-public partnerships were needed to develop frameworks which put human rights at the centre of freedom of expression online.  Poland underlined the importance of States’ commitment to defending freedom of expression and asked how better forums for discussion of freedom of expression online could be created.

France was keen on promoting freedom of expression online and was drafting legislation on the manipulation of information online.  On extrajudicial killings, France said the practice was the most violent way to silence dissidents.  Better consideration of non-state actors’ legal obligations did not exonerate States from protecting their citizens.  Brazil recognized deficiencies in the international system with regards to holding non-state armed actors accountable to human rights law.  On freedom of expression, Brazil asked how companies could deal with disinformation spread through “bogus” third-party news articles, fake accounts and deceptive advertisement.  Iraq noted that the death penalty was only used for the most serious crimes, including terrorism.  The death penalty was only used when all other legal procedures were exhausted and the sentence was in line with the gravity of the crime.  Freedom of opinion remained a priory for Iraq and there were no prisoners of conscious in the country.

Croatia noted that the regulation of user generated content posed many challenges, for States and companies alike, with both bearing the responsibility to ensure the respect for human rights online.  What would the Special Rapporteur suggest to social media companies in order to discourage the presence of racist and xenophobic groups in the online sphere?  Egypt noted that the number of non-state armed groups had increased in certain regions of the world and such groups had to be held accountable.  It was vital that States recognized online freedom of expression in line with international law, yet hate speech had to be regulated.  Australia condemned all unlawful violence by armed non-state actors which interfered with the enjoyment of human rights.  Australia had developed a carefully balanced regulatory system to ensure that its freedom of expression was respected, while also regulating the darker elements of the Internet.

Switzerland asked what would be the most appropriate way to develop a new instrument to ensure that non-state armed actors respect human rights in an adequate way?  What encouragement measures could countries put in place to ensure that Internet intermediators shoulder their responsibility concerning human rights?  Chile said that in the past few years, the growth of the Internet had opened new challenges for promoting and protecting human rights online.  Reparations to victims had to be a priority in the United Nations, particularly in the post-conflict settings.  Netherlands said that international human rights law stipulated how States had to conduct themselves in the online sphere.  The reference to the European Union Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online in the report was welcomed.  

Sudan said freedom of expression on the Internet was in line with its national laws and there were 13 million Internet users in the country.  Sudan asked the Special Rapporteur to consider the growing use of the Internet to incite hatred, and spread terrorism and organized crime.  Paraguay noted that the birth and wide-spread reach of the Internet was an opportunity to fight poverty and aid job creation, adding that the increase of hatred and propaganda online hampered the right of people to freedom of expression online.  What were best practices to protect personal data of those using online platforms?  Iran stressed that corporations which collected large amounts of personal data on their users, which might be passed to intelligence agencies, should consider transparency, accountability and a commitment to a remedy in order to protect individuals’ right to freedom of expression online.  Iran welcomed the focus of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of armed non-State actors such as armed opposition groups, insurgents, rebels, terrorists, criminal cartels, or gangs as a pervasive challenge to human rights protection.

Botswana agreed that there must be transparency in the regulation of online content and said that the call by the Special Rapporteur for social media councils to prevent censorship and ensure the right to privacy, therefore protecting freedom of expression, was commendable.  Greece found the recommendations by the Special Rapporteur on the protection of freedom of expression online to be particularly timely and said that the platforms where the right to freedom of expression was exercised had a necessity to ensure moderation in order to avoid this right being abused by hate speech and incitement to hatred.  Tunisia recognized the need to ensure balance between the right to freedom of expression and incitement to hatred online and asked the Special Rapporteur to indicate how this balance could be achieved, particularly with respect to the protection of the right to privacy.  Tunisia stressed the need to combat impunity for human rights violations by non-state actors in armed conflicts.

Albania supported the call for the international community to strengthen the current legal framework to hold armed non-state actors accountable and asked for additional recommendations regarding the development of guidelines to that end.  Albania assured that offline freedom of expression rights applied equally online.  Venezuela said its Constitution set out the obligations of the State to investigate and punish human rights violations committed by armed non-state actors.  Legislation protecting freedom of speech was in place and a committee had been created to combat all forms of hatred and violence in order to foster peace and public order.  

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said the right to privacy underpinned other rights and freedoms.  The Internet presented new challenges to freedom of expression, including hate speech and violent extremism.  The Organization agreed that a multi-stakeholder approach was the best suited to address such issues.  South Africa agreed with the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings’ findings regarding right to life obligations and asked how written human rights commitments could be obtained from armed non-state actors.  South Africa believed that human rights standards provided a framework for ensuring accountability from State and private actors online.

Comments by the Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions and on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

AGNES CALLAMARD, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said the youth community in El Salvador felt trapped, with gangs on one side and State authorities on the other.  This was one of the existential issues faced by the Government and one that she was willing to help address.  Turning to Iraq, she said a tremendous opportunity was available to pursue reintegration and assistance for victims of human rights abuses.  She called on States to ensure victims of terror obtained access to justice and truth mechanisms.  Answering questions regarding her thematic report, she encouraged States to explore setting up specialized human rights courts tasked with charging armed non-state actors.  The Human Rights Council must continue to hold those armed groups accountable for violations and call on mandate holders for assistance and research.  She took note of the need to distinguish armed non-state actors from groups fighting for self-determination identified by the United Nations.  Acknowledging that some armed non-state actors engaged in policing actions in regions where they operated, she stressed that different approaches were needed to engage with those groups.

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, thanked to delegation of Mexico for its responses, stating that he was looking forward to working with the new Government.  Concerning the thematic report, three general points were raised, on individuals, companies and governments seeking to respond to most of the questions.  Overall efforts had to be geared to ensure the exercise of freedom of expression.  The combination of corporate and State activity was making it much more difficult for individuals to enjoy their freedom of expression online.  Concerning the best practices in content moderation, the mandate holder visited companies in Silicon Valley and was seeking to visit companies in Russia and China.  On the process side, the largest companies understood that their imperative was to improve processes.  

It was important that companies allowed for appeal to individuals whose content was taken down.  Context had to be taken into account when evaluating content and deciding whether it was hate speech.  Companies had to identify such context and avoid overregulation.  As for extremism, many companies and governments adopted wide definitions of extremism, giving vast authority to companies to decide what was extremism and what was not.  A concern was raised that governments around the world were behind the disinformation and fake news.  Governments had to stop doing that.  With outsourcing, governments gave to private companies the possibility to decide what was illegal and what was not, and many were not even based in the country.  This was problematic as it was reinforcing the power of the largest actors.  Governments had to realize how to improve their court systems, so they could bring them in this area.

Interactive Dialogue

Uruguay said that the Internet was an unrivalled gateway to express opinions, share ideas and access knowledge but it came with a number of challenges too, including content regulation by companies, the role of States in the supervision of the Internet, and the applicability of legislation.  Latvia noted that disinformation was one of the growing challenges and that companies played a role in the spread of information and so contributed to the amplification of online disinformation.  What could companies do to counter disinformation without risking interference with freedom of expression?  China said that armed non-State actors were usually active in war-torn areas and asked how to ensure the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity in bringing non-State actors to justice, and in dealing with terrorism.  China, a sovereign State, had the right to regulate the Internet and said that its Cyber Security Act was necessary to maintain national security in cyber space.  

Honduras concurred that there were shortcomings in ensuring accountability of non-State actors for human rights violations and abuses, and welcomed the focus of the Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to life and gender-based violence.  What would be the features of a framework to hold those groups accountable for human rights violations?  Russia took issue with the claim that non-State actors had a responsibility for human rights on the same footing as States.  Russia did not agree with a concept of absolute freedom of expression on the Internet, noted the disputed nature of ambiguous concept of human rights online, and called for the development of shared terminology concerning fake news.  Cuba recognized the need to respect freedom of expression, and stressed that a limit must be set to regulate companies’ respect for human rights.  Cuba agreed that non-State actors must respect human rights and international law but remained concerned that the implementation of the report’s recommendations by States implied the recognition of the legitimacy of existence of those kinds of actors which were often in direct opposition to the State itself.

Bosnia and Herzegovina said the regulation of online content was challenging.  Regulatory bodies focused on the education of the media community and the general public.  Media literacy initiatives were needed to improve awareness among stakeholders.  India supported the need to highlight issues of user-generated online content.  Laws protected freedom of expression and those offended by online content.  India opted to identify content as either discussion, advocacy or incitement and responded accordingly to each.  Azerbaijan said it was the imperative duty and obligation of States to create and protect enabling environments for exercising freedom of expression.  However, ensuring the right to freedom of expression should not rule out the need to effectively combat threats like terrorism or prevent incitement to hatred.

Ecuador said that in order to ensure an enabling environment for freedom of expression online, the Government promoted the use of the Internet as a public good.  Ecuador condemned all forms of mass surveillance by State and private entities.  Legislation protected the right of people to express their opinions in any form.  Ukraine said fake news was one of the main non-military instruments actively used by certain actors to influence public opinion.  The Government was deeply concerned over massive propaganda and incitement campaigns of hatred against Ukrainians perpetrated by Russian-owned media outlets.  Myanmar said some States encountered challenges in balancing online freedom of expression and threats of incitement.  The right to freedom of expression was the bedrock of democracy.  The Government was aware of the threat posed by online abuses in social media that had the potential to cultivate hate and violence.

Ireland, in sharing the views of the Special Rapporteur, said that it was not always clear that companies protected the online rights of their users and continued to say that Ireland had launched a National Action Plan on how companies should protect and promote human rights.  Nigeria said that States had the responsibility to protect freedom of expression without undermining peace and security.  Nigeria also wished to reiterate its unequivocal condemnation of all forms of extrajudicial and summary executions and said that it would continue its counter-terrorism efforts.  Burkina Faso said that unfettered restriction of freedom of expression online often went astray, so the Government had adopted a law to establish how online expression could be regulated without violating human rights.

Philippines wished to know how victims of armed non-state actors had access to effective remedies other than those provided for by States and international criminal justice institutions like the International Criminal Court.  Turning to the freedom of opinion and expression, the Philippines said that States needed to resist the temptation to clamp down on freedom of opinion and expression and should instead restrict content based only on the findings by an independent judicial authority.  Austria acknowledged the concern that certain rules for content regulation imposed by States involved risks to the freedom of expression but they needed more information on how the development of self-regulatory social media councils could offer a human rights-compatible approach.  Maldives stressed the need for private stakeholders on the Internet to maintain the delicate balance between freedom of expression and privacy and supported the unrestricted use of the Internet in line with domestic legislation.  

United Kingdom paid tribute to the role that the United States had played in upholding the right to freedom of opinion and expression, but regretted that the United States had decided to withdraw from the Human Rights Council, and while agreeing on the need to reform this body, the United Kingdom reaffirmed its steadfast support for the Council.  Afghanistan noted that the ongoing armed conflict in the country was the main driver of the violation of the right to life, as terrorist networks committed suicide attacks, bombings, and extrajudicial and summary executions.  A free media, particularly social media, was a broad and open platform for all citizens to express their thoughts and ideas without any restriction.

International Federation of Journalists drew attention to Iran’s campaign of intimidation and repression against journalists, and in particular attacks on female journalists, which included accusations of indecency and online harassment.  Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik said that in Iran, the main challenge was not to hold non-State actors accountable under international humanitarian law, but to hold the State accountable, not only under international humanitarian law but international human rights law as well.  World Organisation Against Torture in a joint statement with Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia, expressed concern about the executions associated with the “war on drugs” in Bangladesh, where at least 150 people had been killed and over 23,000 arrested as a result of the anti-narcotics campaign, which, however, seemed to be largely used as a tool for political intimidation in the light of the upcoming elections in December 2018.  

Alliance Defending Freedom was concerned about the recent spread of the so-called codes of conduct which obliged online companies to regulate content but which, without any oversight or accountability mechanisms, could be abused to limit speech.  Lutheran World Federation in a joint statement with ACT Alliance - Action by Churches Together, spoke of the crisis in Nicaragua in which protesters were calling for the departure of the President and early elections, and in which 143 persons had already died and media representatives were under attack and accused of complicity in spreading inciting messages.  Article 19 - The International Centre against Censorship said that when States sought removal of user-generated content from online platforms, it represented censorship; such removals often occurred outside of legal frameworks, with private companies determining the legality of content, rather than courts, and this deputised censorship raised serious freedom of expression concerns.

Women’s Human Rights International Association said the anniversary of the 1988 massacre of prisoners in Iran was three weeks away.  Perpetrators had not been brought to justice, with some now posing as high-ranking Government officials.  A recent report had highlighted the destruction of the mass grave of the victims as a means to destroy evidence of the crime.  Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez said that States must take measures to put an end to violence and punish attacks on the right to life.  State agents themselves must respect the right to life.  Mexican authorities were not acting accordingly, with a high number of extrajudicial killings over the past few years.

Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in a joint statement with Amnesty International; Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia and International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, was concerned about the global increase in the killing of human rights defenders.  A number of clear systemic State failures were contributing to the increase in killings.  The Foundation asked if vigilante groups could be included in the category of armed non-state actors.  British Humanist Association said Bangladesh had criminalized freedom of expression online with dozens of arbitrary arrests taking place.  Pakistan was cracking down on Internet and social media posts that offended Islam.  The crackdown was fostering vigilante attacks against religious minorities.  Blasphemy laws were a tool of oppression.

Statement by the Attorney General of Afghanistan

MOHAMMAD FARID HAMIDI, Attorney General of Afghanistan, said under the leadership of the National Unity Government, a new chapter in human rights had been opened in Afghanistan.  Progress in the field of human rights had been possible despite the ongoing conflict.  Recent peace offers and ceasefires had shown that Afghanistan’s desire for peace was genuine.  The armed conflict was the main cause of human rights violations in the country.  

Today, violence caused by non-state actors accounted for the majority of conflicts around the world.  Regardless of what name armed non-state actors were given, their purpose was the same: the violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.  There was a need to define a new mechanism to enhance accountability.  The Human Rights Council must take targeted steps to put an end to violations that severely affected the right to life.

Displacement, internal and across borders, was a global concern.  Afghanistan believed the lack of a major renewal since 1998 of the Guiding Principles for the Protection of and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons was a major concern.
The elimination of violence against women was a Government priority.  Over the past year, the Government had launched investigations into over 1,800 cases of violence against women.  Children’s rights were identified as a core policy priority.  New legislation was in place to bring an end to child labour.  Torture was also defined and criminalized in the penal code.  Afghanistan was delighted to announce that it had signed and become party to the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The right to life was guaranteed in Afghanistan and State bodies were tasked with defending that right.  Revisions were made to the penal code that severely restricted the use of the death penalty.  Afghanistan had also endorsed the basic pillars of sustainable development through a framework whose goal was to achieve self-reliance for the country.  Afghanistan remained committed to promoting and protecting human rights at all levels.

Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council on the Withdrawal of the United States from the Council

VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, said that last night, at 11 p.m. Geneva time, the United States had announced the decision to withdraw its membership from the Human Rights Council.  In times when the value and strength of multilateralism and human rights were being challenged on a daily basis, it was essential to uphold a strong and vibrant Council, recognizing it as a central part of the United Nations for the twenty-first century.  This Council had, over the past 12 years, tackled numerous human rights situations and issues by keeping them in sharp focus, and in many senses, served as an early warning system by sounding the alarm bells ahead of impending or worsening crises.  Its actions led to meaningful results for the countless human rights victims worldwide that the Council served, underlined Mr. Šuc, who went on to stress that the Human Rights Council was the only intergovernmental body responding to human rights issues and situations worldwide, with the active participation of civil society.  If human rights issues were not discussed here, in this very room, they had little chance to be dealt with meaningfully anywhere else.  The President encouraged the United States to reconsider its position and re-engage with the Human Rights Council, and said that, in terms of next steps, as soon as the notification of withdrawal was formally received, a new member to replace the United States for the remainder of its term would be elected, in accordance with the United Nations practices and the provisions of General Assembly resolution 60/251.

Bulgaria, speaking said on behalf of the European Union, said that the promotion and protection of human rights was at the heart of its foreign policy and reiterated that the European Union remained steadfastly committed to the Human Rights Council, where it would continue to cooperate with other States and civil society to ensure its proper functioning and impact on the ground.  The European Union regretted the decision by the United States to withdraw from the Council, which it said undermined the role of the United States as a strong advocate and supporter of democracy on the world stage. The European Union would continue to defend human rights and freedoms in multilateral fora and around the world, and would continue to remain strongly engaged in the ongoing efficiency efforts led by the Council’s President.

Australia was disappointed by the United States’ decision to resign from the Human Rights Council and stressed that the Council continued to be a multilateral forum for human rights.  That was why Australia remained committed to supporting the reform of the Council throughout its mandate.

China voiced disappointment over the United States’ withdrawal from the Human Rights Council.  All delegations attached great importance to the Council and the principle of multilateralism.  China would continue to work with other delegations constructively.

Statement by the President of Slovenia

BORUT PAHOR, President of Slovenia, affirmed his strong commitment to multilateralism, noting that existing multilateral structures were vital to maintaining peace and ensuring respect for human rights.  In that context, the United States’ decision to resign from the Human Rights Council was bad news for the Council, the United Nations and the United States itself.  Washington had for a long time engaged in the promotion of human rights and should continue to do so.

The Council was one of the most important bodies for the promotion and protection of human rights.  Reforms of the Council must be reached through constructive dialogue.  The Council without the United States was weaker.  However, the United States’ efforts to promote human rights without the Council were also weaker.

Slovenia remained fully committed to the Council’s work and would cooperate with all Member States and the United Nations system.  Mr. Pahor stressed that all Council members must uphold the highest human rights standards, including through full implementation of international law.  Slovenia would contribute to the Council’s work in a positive and constructive manner.

Interactive Dialogue

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia was concerned about the increasing threats to freedom of expression in Asia, particularly noting the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, enforced disappearances of dissidents and political opponents in Bangladesh, and the stifling of the freedom of the press in Cambodia and the Maldives.  International Commission of Jurists said that countries in southeast Asia were misusing laws to intimidate individuals in places like Cambodia where sharing content on Facebook was in violation of the law and in Viet Nam where government censorship was rampant.  East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project said that the restriction of legitimate expression was in danger in places like Kenya, where journalists were threatened and beaten while attempting to cover the return of Miguna Miguna, in the Republic of Somaliland where the media was often harassed, and in South Sudan where Radio Miraya was suspended for allegedly failing to comply with national media laws.  

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights found that the 2016 Chinese Cybersecurity Law prohibited the use of the Internet for a wide range of ill-defined crimes of political nature and represented an attempt to legitimize measures designed to silence the criticism of the Chinese Government, especially in ethnic minority areas like Tibet.  International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said that the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in Iraq were rarely addressed, and their rights were regularly violated with arrests that led to imprisonment and death.

Closing Remarks

AGNES CALLAMARD, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, welcomed the statements made.  She assured delegates that there was a possibility to deal with non-state armed actors without treating them akin to States.  Attributing certain human rights obligations to non-state armed actors did not nullify, but rather complement State responsibility.  The report stressed the responsibility of States to protect civilians against non-state armed actors.  One of the key recommendations was the establishment of due-diligence mechanisms to see how and where atrocities could be prevented.  The current legal framework to prevent violations of non-state armed actors was simply not working, it was full of gaps and contained violations for victims.  Ms. Callamard called on all to test, apply and implement a new framework and instruments that would allow prevention of violations of non-state armed actors, including the establishment of trust funds for victims.

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, thanked all delegations and representatives of civil society for their comments and interventions.  A great value of the Council was the fact that civil society representatives had a chance to speak up, making the decision of the United States to withdraw even more regretful.  The public saw a great number of threats online, whether it was hate speech, harassment or disinformation.  On the technical side, States, including European States, were conducting efforts amounting to censorship even prior to publishing the content.  This was a very worrying trend.  States had a very important role not just in ensuring that freedom of expression was upheld, and this included the provision of resources for people to get access to the Internet, but also to provide adequate training.  Governments, especially donor governments, were encouraged to continue their struggle for freedom of expression.
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For use of the information media; not an official record
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