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Statement to the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly (Third Committee) by Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression

New York, October 23, 2020

It is an honour to address the Third Committee for the first time in my capacity as the Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. I was entrusted with this mandate by the Human Rights Council, starting on August 1, 2020.

I have two objectives today: firstly, to present the last report written by my predecessor, Professor David Kaye, and secondly, to share with you briefly some key issues on which I hope to work during my mandate.  

The subject of Professor Kaye’s report is academic freedom and its relationship to freedom of opinion and expression.

The horrific incident last week in which a teacher in France was decapitated on the street for what he had taught in class is a chilling reminder of violent attacks on freedom of expression. It is also a tragic example of the kind of risks academics face when they seek to push the boundaries of knowledge, debate and discourse. In responding to such attacks, States must respect fully their obligations under international human rights law.  

The report has three key messages:

Firstly, academic freedom is protected by a wide range of human rights, including in particular freedom of opinion and expression.

These rights extend not only to the research, scholarship, teaching and other activities that academics carry out in their institutions but also to their activities as commentators or educators outside these institutions.

Secondly, academic freedom includes not only individual human rights but also the obligation to respect the autonomy and self-governance of academic institutions.

Thirdly, academic freedom is under threat in many countries.

In almost every region of the world, academics face harassment, intimidation, repression, imprisonment and sometimes even death for the issues they pursue, the ideas they explore, the questions they raise, and the methodologies they bring to bear on public policy.

The autonomy of academic institutions is also being undermined by governments in multiple ways, including interference with appointments and admissions, politicization of school programs, restrictions on research for political or ideological reasons, and prior censorship of publications.

Censorship kills scholarship. Attacks on academic freedom corrode the pillars of democratic life, scientific progress, human development and human rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations for:

  • States: to revise laws, refrain from attacks on academic communities and ensure the autonomy of academic institutions;
  • UN human rights system: to include considerations of academic freedom when reviewing States’ compliance with human rights;
  • Academic institutions: to stand up for the rights of all members of their communities;
  • Members of the academic communities and their advocates: to articulate their claims as violations of academic freedom and bring them to attention of the UN and regional human rights mechanisms, including the Special Procedures.

Needless to say, the unprecedented challenge of finding an effective response to Covid-19 pandemic has made academic freedom more important than ever so that research, debate and dissemination of knowledge can take place, including through cross border cooperation, without harassment, repression or persecution.

I now turn to the second part of my statement and share with you briefly what I see as my upcoming priorities.

The imperative to respect, protect and strengthen the right to freedom of opinion and expression has never been greater.

Covid-19 has given a new urgency to the right to seek, receive and impart information. At the same time, pre-existing threats to freedom of opinion and expression have worsened, and digital technology has added new layers of complexities and challenges. 

Against that backdrop, my intention is to build on the excellent work done by my predecessor while also breaking some new ground.

In the twelve weeks since my appointment, I have met with Member States, civil society groups and rights holders and listened to their concerns and expectations. Based on what I have heard as well as my own understanding and experience, I see four thematic priorities:

Advancing sustainable development through freedom of opinion and expression. Freedom of opinion and expression is the linchpin of the human rights system, vital for the enjoyment of a range of economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. It is as essential for education as it is for environmental protection, for empowering the poor as well as for ensuring free and fair elections, for eradicating corruption as much as for fighting the Coronavirus pandemic.

However, not much work has been done recently on the relationship between sustainable development and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. I am keen to explore this gap, especially given the acknowledgement of the importance of access to information in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Strengthening media freedom and safety of journalists. Independent, diverse and pluralistic media online and offline is an essential pillar of democracy and an important means of ensuring transparency, accountability and public trust. The increased threats to media freedom and attacks on journalists with almost total impunity are deeply worrying. The growing use of criminal law to suppress journalists and bloggers is another disturbing trend. I believe the mandate can make an important contribution on the legal aspects of protection and prevention strategies, including by addressing impunity. I am in contact with UNESCO and OHCHR and the various international initiatives to enhance media freedom and the safety of journalists.

Putting a gender lens on freedom of opinion and expression. As the first woman to hold this mandate since its creation in 1993, I am keen to bring a strong gender – indeed, feminist - perspective to the mandate, both by mainstreaming gender in all aspects of my work as well as highlighting some distinct issues relating to women and girls. The considerable gender discrimination in women’s access to information, a widening gender gap in internet use in developing countries, on-line harassment and violence against women, misogyny in the media and unequal treatment of women journalists are just a few issues among others that require more attention.

Addressing the impact of digital technology. Digital technology has great bearing across the entire spectrum of my mandate and I see it as having cross-cutting relevance. My predecessor has done ground breaking work on various aspects of digital technology and their impact on freedom of opinion and expression. I intend to build on that work by focussing on some persistent issues as well as some evolving ones, including disinformation and hate speech, targeted surveillance, impact of technology on freedom of opinion, responsibilities of corporate actors and multi-stakeholder initiatives.  Technology and human rights is a dynamic area with many new ideas, new initiatives and new gaps in human rights protection emerging as digital technologies advance. I hope to contribute to various initiatives in the UN system as well as outside it.    

I would welcome any thoughts, suggestions or questions that delegations may have on the thematic priorities. I look forward to making country visits, covering all regions in the course of my mandate, and to engaging with governments, corporate actors, civil society and rights holders at international, regional, national and local levels.

Ultimately, what I can achieve will depend very much on the political support and cooperation of Member States. I look forward to an open dialogue with Permanent Missions and governments in their capitals and to working constructively with all stakeholders to further our shared goal of strengthening the right to freedom of opinion and expression for all.

Thank you.