UN extends human rights to online world

The United Nations has passed a resolution calling for human rights to be counted online as well as off, citing the internet as an important medium for free speech and free assembly. The resolution was not without its opponents, though.

The resolution singled out state-sanctioned internet shutdowns for condemnation (photo: RIA Nostovi via wikimedia commons)
The resolution singled out state-sanctioned internet shutdowns for condemnation (photo: RIA Nostovi via wikimedia commons)

The United Nations (UN) has expanded the domain of human rights to cyber-space.

In a landmark resolution for the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet”, the UN has affirmed the right of all to use the internet without fear of surveillance or deprivation.  

It clearly states that the internet's allowance for freedom of association and speech must not be mitigated. The resolution also points out that “privacy online is important for the realisation of the right to freedom of expression and to hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

This builds on a 2012 resolution which affirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”.

The resolution also redoubles its call for universal and persisting access to the internet by calling “upon all States to bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls,” as well as disabled people.

While the resolution is not legally binding, such a decision signifies a great wave of international pressure towards internet freedom.

Privacy International legal officer Tomaso Falchetta told SCMagazineUK.com that "Privacy International welcomes the adoption of the resolution on human rights in the internet. The resolution builds upon previous work of the Council.” He added, “These are significant recommendations that can be used to challenge the practices of governments to unduly limit human rights online.”

The bill was not without its opponents: 17 countries proposed several amendments to the resolution.

Falcetta added that Privacy International joined Article 19, an international free speech group, “in objecting to the amendments introduced by the Russian Federation and China, which would have weakened the text. The fact that the Council rejected these amendments and eventually adopted the resolution by consensus is an important political signal of support to the protection of human rights online."

Those 14 countries read as a human rights rogues gallery. Russia and China, perhaps predictably, took issue with the resolution as did Indonesia, Qatar, South Africa, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and India among others.

The amendments took issue with, as the resolution states, “a human rights approach” to internet freedom as well as the linking of freedom of speech with freedom of internet use.

South Africa curiously  stated its opposition on the basis of tackling cyber-bullying and hate speech. Ncumisa Pamella Notutela, who represents the South African permanent mission to the UN said, “The exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression is not absolute, and carries with it duties and responsibilities for right-holders.”

But also key to that opposition was the condemnation of countries who reserve the right to restrict access to the internet. The resolution “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online.”

This is in practice in the countries that opposed the clause on often-broad basis of combatting terrorism' or ensuring national security. In Indian-administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir mobile internet is supposedly shut down on a regular basis and Venezuela has imposed several internet blackout during periods of political turmoil.

Another amendment tried to remove references to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR).

While a subject like human rights will always be a relatively abstract one, its international legitimacy largely comes from the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), the founding document of the international organisation. Written  in the aftermath of the second world war, the UNDHR sets out the fundamental freedoms to which every person on earth should be entitled. The articles draw out basic freedom and principles such as the universality of rights without discrimination and the right to life, liberty and security of person, among its 30 articles.
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