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Human Rights Council holds Panel discussion on online violence against women human rights defenders

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22 June 2018

Human Rights Council
AFTERNOON 

21 June 2018

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held the first part of its annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women, focusing on the impact of violence against women human rights defenders and women’s organizations in digital spaces.  

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, made opening remarks.  Participants in the panel discussion were Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Director of Glitch!UK and former politician, Nighat Dad, Executive Director at Digital Rights Foundation, and Matt Mitchell, Director of Digital Safety and Privacy at Tactical Technology Collective, and the moderator of the discussion was Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.  

In his opening statement, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that despite the immense benefits that digital connectivity had delivered, digital media had also opened the door to new forms of oppression and violence.  Women all too frequently faced harassment and intimidation online that spilled over into the real world.  Those attacks sought to silence women.  Online campaigns against women rights defenders and organizations aimed to damage their credibility as advocates and restrict the already limited public space afforded to women activists.  If such trends continued, online spaces could widen sex- and gender-based discrimination.

Dubravka Šimonović, discussion moderator and Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, reminded that human rights protected offline should also be protected online.  That principle should be upheld in the digital world.  Different types of offline violence were mirrored in online violence against women.  All those legislative and other measures to address online violence against women should, therefore, be framed in a larger context of violence against women.  

Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Director of Glitch!UK and former politician, reminded that in Europe, nine million girls had experienced some kind of online violence by the time they were 15 years old.  Globally, women were 27 times more likely to be harassed online.  Online violence was not a robust debate.  Online violence against politically active women represented a direct barrier to women’s free speech and political participation.  Digital citizenship needed to be central to education, taught universally and from a young age.  

Nighat Dad, Executive Director at Digital Rights Foundation, said that according to a recent study by Amnesty International on malware attacks that women human rights activists were experiencing in Pakistan, attackers were strategically designing fake profiles to attack human rights defenders with spyware and exposing them to surveillance and fraud.  Abuse against women was gendered whether it was body-shaming, character assassination, rape threats, harassment or other.  As a result, women would start self-censoring or would leave the online space altogether.

Matt Mitchell, Director of Digital Safety and Privacy at Tactical Technology Collective, said that people directly affected and marginalized by online attacks were capable of solving their own problems better than anyone else.  For them to be effective in their responses to attacks, there was a need to provide them with adequate resources, information, support and finances.  Turning to the role and responsibilities of private actors, Mr. Mitchell said attacks on women rights defenders did not occur in a vacuum.  Technology and online spaces afforded people the chance not to recreate the misogyny and sexism witnessed in the offline world.  

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that when misused, digital technologies could replicate and sometimes amplify violence experienced offline.  States should ensure a preventive approach and develop and enforce laws and policies to prevent online violence against young women and girls.  The first step towards addressing online violence was to recognize that it was a legitimate and harmful manifestation of gender-based violence.  Gender-responsive digital literacy had to be incorporated into school education materials.  Women rights defenders faced double discrimination based on their gender and line of work.  

Speaking were Australia, Estonia on behalf of a group of countries, Togo on behalf of the African Group, United Arab Emirates on behalf of the League of Arab States, Brazil on behalf of the Community of Portuguese Language-Speaking Countries, European Union, Liechtenstein on behalf of a group of countries, Canada, Spain, UN Women, Ireland, China, Greece, Denmark, Germany, Sudan, Argentina, Lesotho, Pakistan, Venezuela, Iraq, France, Netherlands, and Serbia.

Also taking the floor were the following civil society organizations: Australian Human Rights Commission, Equality and Human Rights Commission of Great Britain, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Plan International, Inc (in a joint statement with Defence for Children International; Foundation ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes) and International Federation Terre des Hommes); International Service for Human Rights (in a joint statement with several NGOs1); Espace Afrique International and Action Canada for Population and Development (in a joint statement with Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights YCSRR).

The Council will reconvene on Friday, 22 June at 10 a.m. to continue its annual discussion on the human rights of women, with a focus on advancing women’s rights in the economic sphere through access to and participation in information and communication technologies.  It will then hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.  Finally, it will hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Working Group on transnational corporations and human rights, and with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Opening Remarks by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that despite the immense benefits that digital connectivity had delivered, digital media had also opened the door to new forms of oppression and violence.  Women all too frequently faced harassment and intimidation online that spilled over into the real world.  The vast and transnational connectivity of the Internet enabled the rapid dissemination of slander, mobilizing very large groups of hostile individuals across broad distances.  While women of any background faced attacks, women human rights defenders were more likely to be targets of violence.  

Mexican activists involved in sexual and reproductive rights had reportedly been facing attacks.  In Viet Nam, an environmental activist had been physically attacked.  In India, a journalist who published criticisms of Hindu extremism had been killed last year.  Italy’s Speaker of Parliament had bravely faced down death threats and threats of sexual violence.  In Iraq, several women candidates for parliament had faced online defamation campaigns.

Those attacks sought to silence women.  Online campaigns against women rights defenders and organizations aimed to damage their credibility as advocates and restrict the already limited public space afforded to women activists.  These forms of intimidation and violence could also cripple the work of women’s networks, which often used online platforms as their key form of communication and mobilisation.  If such trends continued, online spaces could widen sex- and gender-based discrimination.

States and corporate actors must work more effectively to prevent these forms of online violence.  States had a legal obligation to defend their citizens from all forms of violence and law enforcement could not dismiss these phenomena as trivial.  Only international human rights law could provide the firm ground for consistent and principled action in this context.  The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was working with technology companies to address online threats and violence, and to fully implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Statements by the Moderator and the Panellists

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Discussion Moderator and Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, reminded that her mandate had been established in 1994 to send a message that violence against women was a crime.  She underlined the importance of the focus on human rights in online violence against women.  There were still treaties and mechanisms that were dynamic and followed the current situation of human rights, and that were capable of providing guidance in the digital space.  Human rights protected offline should be protected online.  That principle should be upheld in the digital world.  Different types of offline violence were mirrored in online violence against women.  All those legislative and other measures to address online violence against women should be framed in the larger context of violence against women.  Digital-related gender-based violence against women human rights defenders took many forms.  She asked the next speaker, as a woman engaged in politics, did she feel particularly targeted?  What was the impact on her political engagement and on the enjoyment of her rights?  What could be the best ways to prevent those, including through engaging with policy makers, youth, and social media companies?  

SEYI AKIWOWO, Founder and Director of Glitch!UK and former politician, said she would use her intervention to debunk five myths commonly used to dispute, disrupt and downgrade online violence and its harmful impact.  She explained that she had founded Glitch!UK, a not-for-profit online abuse advocacy group in 2017, after facing horrendous online violence.  Online violence very much existed.  In Europe nine million girls had experienced some kind of online violence by the time they were 15 years old.  Globally, women were 27 times more likely to be harassed online.  Online violence was not a robust debate.  It was about intentional harassment of women to silence and force them to leave digital spaces.  Online violence had an impact on health and wellbeing, and on progress towards gender equality, and was a threat to democracy.  Online violence against politically active women represented a direct barrier to women’s free speech and political participation.  Everyone could scientifically change the nature, scale and effect of the intimidation of politically active and non-politically active women in digital spaces.  Internet intermediaries could be more transparent, more diverse and follow a code of conduct of high standards.  Digital citizenship needed to be central to education, taught universally and from a young age.  Driving women out of public space was no new thing.  It was merely an extension of a reality, a reality lived by millions of women around the world.  

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Discussion Moderator and Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, asked the next speaker what strategies had helped women human rights defenders in seeking protection and effective response to violence in digital spaces.  What were the promising practices, including from State entities, in enforcing effective responses to violence in digital spaces and ensuring the protection of women human rights defenders against online gender-based violence and harassment?

NIGHAT DAD, Executive Director, Digital Rights Foundation, said that in the 1980s under one of the dictatorships that Pakistan had undergone, the feminist movement had been very strong and women had marched on the streets and demanded their rights.  As a result, they were baton-charged, tear-gassed and jailed.  Such type of force was expected from law enforcement authorities.  However, what could be done when translating offline activism in online spaces and still experiencing the same type of violence?  According to a recent study by Amnesty International on malware attacks that women human rights activists were experiencing in Pakistan, attackers were strategically designing fake profiles to attack human rights defenders with spyware and exposing them to surveillance and fraud.  Such attacks came in a package of other attacks, like cyber harassment, invasion of privacy, doxing and physical threats.  Abuse against women was gendered whether it was body-shaming, character assassination, rape threats, harassment or other.  As a result, women would start self-censoring or would leave the online space altogether.  

Workshops were being conducted with human rights defenders in Pakistan to train them to counter online attacks and cyber harassment.  The approach was to weaponise the reporting mechanism – report against a person or group that was attacking, hold social media companies accountable, and shaming them if there was a lack of response.  Organizations like Digital Rights Foundation were helping people take down harmful content from social media.  They had also set up a free-of-cost Cyber Harassment Helpline, acting as a bridge between law enforcement and victims of online abuse.  Such efforts left a huge impact on how people navigated online spaces.  

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Discussion Moderator and Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, asked the next speaker what were the most effective ways for women rights defenders to ensure their protection in digital spaces.  She also asked what roles and responsibilities fell on private actors.

MATT MITCHELL, Director of Digital Safety and Privacy and Tactical Technology Collective, said that people directly affected and marginalized by online attacks were capable of solving their own problems better than anyone else.  For them to be effective in their responses to attacks, there was a need to provide them with adequate resources, information, support and finances.  The Tactical Technology Collective had launched an initiative called Gender Tech Institute to provide women with the space to re-imagine and co-create just, inclusive and equal societies.

Turning to the role and responsibilities of private actors, Mr. Mitchell said attacks on women rights defenders did not occur in a vacuum.  Technology and online spaces afforded people the chance not to recreate the misogyny and sexism witnessed in the offline world.  People self-identifying as women did not attack themselves and those self-identifying as men or boys must educate themselves on the matter.  Start-ups and tech companies had a role to play.  Large technology companies could easily prevent the worst of online abuse and attacks with minimal changes to their platforms.

Discussion

Australia strongly supported women human rights defenders who consistently engaged in advocacy despite power imbalances.  The use of digital technologies and social media to target women was a global phenomenon from which no country was immune so Australia had established the e-Safety Commissioner.  Estonia, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said that online violence had to be seen in the context of the globally shrinking democratic and civic space, hence demanding a multi-dimensional approach.  How could such multi-stakeholder formats be established effectively?  Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said that in the African context, online violence was a new phenomenon which was why there was no acquired data or legislation on the subject.  Still the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights had mechanisms at its disposal to address this issue.

United Arab Emirates, speaking on behalf of the League of Arab States, said that under Islamic law, men and women were equal in terms of dignity, which was why the participation of women was promoted in all areas of life and Arab countries were working on upholding gender equality.   Brazil, speaking on behalf of the Community of Portuguese Language-Speaking Countries, stated that a systematic mainstreaming of gender perspective was a prerequisite for sustainable development in accordance with the 2030 Agenda.  European Union said that online spaces provided key channels for inclusion and activism.  However, the online world was also a mirror of the offline world and women had been facing misogyny, marginalization, discrimination, harassment and violence online.  

Lichtenstein, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said that to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, there was a need to eliminate violence against women in the online sphere, and asked how a more robust response to violence against women rights defenders could be fostered.  Canada recognised that people defending gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights were facing unacceptable attacks and inquired how organizations could engage men and boys in efforts to end gender-based violence in the digital space.  Spain stressed that threats faced by women online undermined their human rights and insisted on the protection of human rights defenders from violence online, especially since women human rights defenders were increasingly exposed to attacks on social media platforms.

UN Women noted that the surge in violence against women human rights defenders took many forms and intended to stifle women’s voices, and said it was developing strategies to support and protect human rights defenders.  Ireland recognized that women human rights defenders faced double discrimination based on their gender and line of work and asked how States could better protect human rights defenders.  China said it was developing a holistic governance system for the Internet to protect women and girls, which would see the creation of a safe online space for Chinese women, and agreed that public-private partnerships were essential to strengthening legal frameworks on the matter.

Australian Human Rights Commission, in a video statement, said that sadly, social media in Australia was used to subject women who advocated on women’s rights issues to online harassment and abuse, noting that some 30 per cent of surveyed women had experienced online abuse, and 40 per cent of them had said that online abuse was misogynistic or sexist in nature.  Plan International, Inc in a joint statement with Defence for Children International; Foundation ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes) and International Federation Terre des Hommes, noted that when misused, digital technologies could replicate and sometimes amplify violence experienced offline, and called upon States to ensure a preventive approach and develop and enforce laws and policies to prevent online violence against young women and girls.  International Service for Human Rights in a joint statement with several NGOs1, stressed that the first step towards addressing online violence was to recognize it as a legitimate and harmful manifestation of gender-based violence, and inquired about the relationship between the right to privacy and the prevention of gender-based violence.

Greece regretted that women human rights defenders were much too often victims of hate speech and online bullying, adding that it had set up in March 2018 a multi-stakeholder working group to draft measures to prevent, tackle and eliminate forms of gender-based online violence.  Denmark said the majority of the 60 per cent of young Danish people who refrained from engaging in online conversations were young women, who did so out of fear of harassment, and stressed that gender-responsive digital literacy had to be incorporated into school education materials.  Germany stated that digital spaces offered opportunities, but also opened new spaces where women human rights defenders faced gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination, and asked how States and civil society could effectively work together to prevent violence against women human rights defenders online.

Sudan noted that modern technology allowed easier access to information but it also raised many challenges, including sexual harassment, defamation, rape threats, and dissemination of private data without consent, and stressed the essential importance of regional and international cooperation in women’s empowerment in line with Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 6.  Argentina affirmed that women human rights defenders challenged gender stereotypes and noted some of its best practices which could be disseminated, such as the Media Act that incorporated a gender perspective.  Lesotho said the digital sphere had turned into a battleground in which women human rights defenders were fighting on two fronts, for human rights and against hatred, harassment and threats, and asked how practical legal measures could be coupled with non-legal ones to address structural inequalities which stemmed from patriarchal notions.

Pakistan condemned any acts, intimidation or harassment against women human rights defenders and said that a multifaceted approach was needed, including the removal of barriers and bottlenecks, the elimination of stereotypes, and gender-sensitive mainstreaming in policymaking.  Venezuela prohibited all forms of violence and discrimination against women, particularly against women’s organizations which worked with State institutions to promote women’s rights.  Iraq had established a framework conducive to the advancement of women’s rights, allowing women to access modern technologies while guaranteeing the principle of gender equality, and stressed that Daesh had perpetrated many atrocities against women, including rape and assault.

France said societies were only at the beginning of the digital era, yet some of the most hideous aspects of society were prevalent in digital space.  The absence of intermediation made digital technologies effective tools for attacks on women.   France had adopted a draft law to ensure that targeted attacks were punishable.  Netherlands said the Internet provided women rights defenders with tremendous possibilities to campaign for human rights and gender issues.  Without adequate protections, women faced attacks on their physical security and mental wellbeing.  The Netherlands asked how States and businesses could better protect rights defenders.  Serbia stressed that the achievement of gender equality was a key element in preventing violence against women.  New technologies had resulted in the emergence of violence against women in the online sphere.  National efforts must focus on incorporating these forms of violence into legislation and training law enforcement.

Equality and Human Rights Commission of Great Britain, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, in a video message, said women had become particular targets for abuse and harassment online.  This was particularly true for women in, or running for, public office.  They recommended that the United Kingdom commit to a full-scale review of hate crime offences.  Espace Afrique International said women rights defenders were increasingly exposed to violence, including on the Internet.  Online violence could cause physical and psychological harm.  In Africa, too few States had appropriate legal protections for human rights defenders.  Action Canada for Population and Development in a joint statement with Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (YCSRR), said violence against women rights defenders was often met with impunity from those in positions of authority who considered it an occupational hazard for working on so-called “controversial issues”.  Action Canada asked how private companies could be held accountable for complicity in violence.

Concluding Remarks

MATT MITCHELL, Director of Digital Safety and Privacy at Tactical Technology Collective, said that engaging men and boys required education.  The younger they could be reached and engaged, the better their outcomes would be.  In terms of concrete steps taken by women’s organizations in digital spaces, there was a focus on holistic models in addressing harassment and abuse.  It was important to take digital safety seriously in social networks, report abuse, work together to find known offenders, and engage in advocacy.    

SEYI AKIWOWO, Founder and Director of Glitch!UK and former politician, noted that diversity in technology companies was not satisfactory.  From the very fundamental basis, their platforms were flawed in not taking into account the diversity of users.  There was a question of who was moderating those platforms.  It was important to introduce digital education in schools, and especially gender-sensitive digital education for boys.  Gender disaggregated data should be collected by Member States, while companies should fully resource civil society’s actions against online violence.

NIGHAT DAD, Executive Director at Digital Rights Foundation, stressed that female human rights defenders labelled as State enemies triggered online violence against them.  There were gaps in law enforcement, as well as in training of law enforcement officers and judges.  When laws and policies were made, the process should be a multi-stakeholder one.  Human rights should be at the centre of those laws and policies.

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, Discussion Moderator and Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, reminded all to look at the human rights framework developed at the international level and how it was translated into national laws and policies, for example when it came to encryption and the anonymity of female human rights defenders and politicians.  The United Nations system should invite different Special Procedures and treaty bodies to respond to online violence.

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1/ Joint statement on behalf of: International Service for Human Rights; Amnesty International ; Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development Forum-Asia; Association for Progressive Communications; Association for Women's Rights in Development; Front Line, The International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and World Organisation Against Torture.
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