The UN Human Rights Office is headed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and is the principal UN entity on human rights. Also known as UN Human Rights, it is part of the UN Secretariat. UN Human Rights has been mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote and protect all human rights. As such, it plays a crucial role in supporting the three fundamental pillars of the UN: peace and security, human rights, and development. UN Human Rights provides technical expertise and capacity development in regard to the implementation of human rights, and in this capacity assists governments in fulfilling their obligations.
UN Human Rights is associated with a number of other UN human rights entities. To illustrate, it serves as the secretariat for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Treaty Bodies. The UNHRC is a body of the UN that aims to promote the respect of human rights worldwide. It discusses thematic issues and in addition to its ordinary session, it has the ability to hold special sessions on serious human rights violations and emergencies. The ten Treaty Bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties.
The UNHRC established the Special Procedures, which are made up of UN Special Rapporteurs (i.e. independent experts or working groups) working on a variety of human rights thematic issues and country situations in order to assist the efforts of the UNHRC through regular reporting and advice. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), under the auspices of the UNHRC, is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN member states, providing the opportunity for each state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries. UN Human Rights also serves as the secretariat to the UPR process.
Certain non-governmental organisations and national human rights institutions have the ability to participate as observers in UNHRC sessions after receiving the necessary accreditation.
Digital issues are increasingly gaining in prominence in the work of UN Human Rights, the UNHRC, the Special Procedures, the UPR, and the Treaty Bodies. The range of topics covered is constantly growing, encompassing for example: Privacy and data protection-related questions; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; racial discrimination; gender-related issues; the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights; the rights of older persons; and the safety of journalists online.
A landmark document which provides a blueprint for digital human rights is the UNHRC resolution (A/HRC/32/L.20) on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, which was first adopted in 2016. A second resolution with the same name (A/HRC/38/L.10) was adopted in July 2018. Both resolutions affirm that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. Numerous other resolutions and reports from UN human rights entities and experts considered in this overview tackle an ever-growing range of other digital issues including the right to privacy in the digital age, freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, the rights of older persons, racial discrimination, the rights of women and girls, human rights in the context of violent extremism online, and economic, social, and cultural rights.
- Privacy and data protection
Challenges to the right to privacy in the digital age, such as surveillance, communications interception, and the increased use of data-intensive technologies, are among some of the issues covered by the activities of UN Human Rights. At the request of the UN General Assembly and the UNHRC, the High Commissioner prepared two reports on the right to privacy in the digital age, which were presented to the General Assembly in December 2014 and to the UNHRC in September 2018.
The UNHRC also tackles online privacy and data protection. Resolutions on the promotion and protection of human rights on the Internet have underlined the need to address security concerns on the Internet in accordance with international human rights obligations to ensure the protection of all human rights online, including the right to privacy. The UNHRC has also adopted specific resolutions on the right to privacy in the digital age including the latest version from 2019, which put a particular emphasis on the impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) on the enjoyment of the right to privacy. Resolutions on the safety of journalists have emphasised the importance of encryption and anonymity tools for journalists to freely exercise their work.
The UNHRC has also mandated the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy to address the issue of online privacy in its resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age from 2015 (A/HRC/RES/28/16). To illustrate, the Special Rapporteur has addressed the question of privacy from the stance of surveillance in the digital age (A/HRC/34/60), which becomes particularly challenging in the context of cross-border data flows.
More recently, specific attention has been given to privacy of health data that is being produced more and more in the day and age of digitalisation and that requires the ‘highest legal and ethical standards’ (A/HRC/40/63).
The 2020 report (A/HRC/43/52) published by the Special Rapporteur provides a set of recommendations on privacy in the online space calling for, among other things, ‘comprehensive protection for secure digital communications, including by promoting strong encryption and anonymity-enhancing tools, products, and services, and resisting requests for “backdoors” to digital communications’ and recommends that ‘government digital identity programs are not used to monitor and enforce societal gender norms, or for purposes that are not lawful, necessary, and proportionate in a democratic society.’
- Freedom of expression
The High Commissioner and her office advocate for the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, including in the online space. Key topics in this advocacy are: The protection of the civic space and the safety of journalists online; various forms information control, including internet shutdowns and censorship; addressing incitement to violence, discrimination, or hostility; disinformation; and the role of social media platforms in the space of online expression.
In response to the rise of the ‘fake news’ phenomenon, the High Commissioner has joined other organisations in urging stakeholders to ensure that any measures aimed to tackle this phenomenon do not lead to illegitimate restrictions of freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression in the digital space also features highly on the agenda of the UNHRC. It has often underlined that states have a responsibility to ensure an adequate protection of freedom of expression online, including when they adopt and implement measures aimed to deal with issues such cybersecurity, incitement to violence, and the promotion and distribution of extremist content online. The UNHRC has also been firm in condemning measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, and has called upon states to refrain from and cease such measures.
The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has been mandated by the UNHRC to also explore issues related to freedom of expression online.
In 2018, the Special Rapporteur published a thematic report on ‘online content regulation’ that tackles governments’ regulation of user-generated online content and that recommends states to ensure an enabling environment for online freedom of expression. The same year, he also presented to the General Assembly a report addressing freedom of expression issues linked to the use of AI by companies and states. A year later, the Special Rapporteur presented a report to the UN General Assembly on online hate speech that discusses the regulation of hate speech in international human rights law and how it provides a basis for governmental actors considering regulatory options and for companies determining how to respect human rights online.
More recently, in 2020, the Special Rapporteur issued a report titled ‘Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression’ that specifically tackles issues such as access to the Internet, which is highlighted to be ‘a critical element of healthcare policy and practice, public information, and even the right to life.’ The report calls for greater international co-ordination on digital connectivity given the importance of digital access to healthcare information. Other reports addressed the vital importance of encryption and anonymity for the exercise of freedom of opinion and the threats to freedom of expression emanating from widespread digital surveillance.
Online hate speech and discrimination has also been addressed by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. For instance, in a document published in 2019, the online manifestation of antisemitism (including antisemtic hate speech) was underscored and best practices from the Netherlands and Poland were shared. The report highlights that governments ‘have an affirmative responsibility to address online antisemitism, as the digital sphere is now the primary public forum and marketplace for ideas.’ In another document published that same year, the Special Rapporteur assesses the impact of online platforms on discrimination and on the perpetuation of hostile and violent acts in the name of religion, as well as how restrictive measures such as blocking and filtering of websites negatively impact the freedom of expression.
The issue of online blasphemy has also been addressed on a number of occasions, including in reports from 2018 and 2017.
- Gender rights online
UN Human Rights and the UNHRC have reiterated on several occasions the need for countries to bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs), including the Internet, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls. It has also condemned gender-based violence committed on the Internet. In a 2016 resolution on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, the UNHRC requested the High Commissioner on Human Rights to prepare a report on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective, in consultation with states and other stakeholders.
- Rights of persons with disabilities
The promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the online space has been addressed on several occasions by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. A report from 2016 underscored that ICTs including the Internet can increase the participation of persons with disabilities in public decision-making processes and that states should work towards reducing the access gap between those who can use ICTs and those who cannot.
Nevertheless, a more recent report from 2019 stressed that the shift to e-governance and service delivery in a digital manner can hamper access for older persons with disabilities who may lack the necessary skills or equipment.
- Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
The exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital environment in recent years have attracted increased attention. For example, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in 2019 published a report for the UNHRC focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital age.
The High Commissioner presented to the 44th session of the UNHRC a report on new technologies such as ICTs and their impact on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of assemblies, including peaceful protests. The report highlighted many of the great opportunities for the exercise of human rights that digital technologies offer and analysed key issues linked to online content takedowns and called on states to stop the practice of network disruptions in the context of protests. It also developed guidance concerning the use of surveillance tools, in particular facial recognition technology.
The Human Rights Committee published in July 2020 its General Comment No. 37 on Article 21 of the ICCPR (right of peaceful assembly), which addresses manifold aspects arising in the digital context.
For her 2020 thematic report to the General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance examined how digital technologies deployed in the context of border enforcement and administration reproduce, reinforce, and compound racial discrimination.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is currently in the process of drafting its ‘General recommendation No. 36 on Preventing and Combating Racial Profiling: A call for contribution’, which among other things addresses forms of AI-based profiling.
- Economic, social and cultural rights
In March 2020, the UN Secretary-General presented to the UNHRC a report on the role of new technologies for the realization of economic, social, and cultural rights. He identifies the opportunities and challenges held by new technologies for the realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights and other related human rights, and for the human rights-based implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The report concludes with recommendations for related action by member states, private companies, and other stakeholders.
- Child safety online
The issue of child safety online has been in the attention of UN human rights entities for some time. A 2016 resolution on Rights of the child: information and communications technologies and child sexual exploitation adopted by the UNHRC calls on states to ensure ‘full, equal, inclusive, and safe access […] to information and communications technologies by all children and safeguard the protection of children online and offline’, as well as the legal protection of children from sexual abuse and exploitation online. The Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, mandated by the UNHRC to analyse the root causes of sale and sexual exploitation and promote measures to prevent it, also looks at issues related to child abuse such as sexual exploitation of children online which has been addressed in a report (A/HRC/43/40) published in 2020, but also in earlier reports.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child is currently drafting a General Comment on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment.
- Content policy
Geneva-based human rights organisations and mechanisms also address issues linked to the use of digital technologies in the context of terrorism and violent extremism.
For example, UN Human Rights, at the request of the UNHRC, prepared a compilation report in 2016, which explores, among other issues, aspects related to the preventing and countering of violent extremism online, and underscores that responses to violent extremism that are robustly built on human rights are more effective and sustainable.
Additional efforts were made in 2019 when the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism published a report where she examined the multifaceted impacts of counter-terrorism measures on civic space and the rights of civil society actors and human rights defenders, including measures taken to address vaguely defined terrorist and violent extremist content. In July 2020, she published a report discussing the human rights implications of the use of biometric data to identify terrorists and recommended safeguards that should be taken.
- Artificial intelligence
In 2018, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression presented a report to the UN General Assembly on artificial intelligence technologies and implications for the information environment. Among other things, the document addresses the role of AI on the enjoyment of freedom of opinion and expression including ‘access to the rules of the game when it comes to AI-driven platforms and websites’ and therefore urges for a human rights-based approach to AI.
- Data governance
UN Human Rights maintians an online platform consisting of a number of databases on anti-discrimination and jurisprudence, as well as the Universal Human Rights Index (UHRI) which provide access to recommendations issued to countries by Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, and the UPR of the UNHCR.
UN Human Rights has also published a report titled ‘A human rights-based approach to data – Leaving no one behind in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ that specifically focuses on issues of data collection and disaggregation in the context of sustainable development.
UN Human Rights has worked closely with partners across the UN system in contributing to the Secretary-General’s 2020 Data Strategy, and co-leads, with the Office of Legal Affairs and UN Global Pulse, work on the subsequent Data Protection and Privacy Program.
- Capacity development
UN Human Rights has also launched the UN Human Rights Business and Human Rights in Technology Project (B-Tech Project) that aims to provide guidance and resources to companies operating in the technology space with regard to the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In November 2019, a B-Tech scoping paper was published by the Office of the High Commissioner that outlines the scope and objectives of the project. In July 2020, UN Human Rights published a foundational paper on business model-related human rights risks.
- Extreme poverty
The Special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has in recent years increased his analysis of human rights issues arising in the context of increased digitisation and automation. His 2017 report to the General Assembly tackled the socio-economic challenges in an emerging world where automation and AI threaten traditional sources of income and analysed the promises and possible pitfalls of introducing a universal basic income. His General Assembly report in 2019 addressed worrying trends in connection with the digitisation of the welfare state.
- Interdisciplinary approaches
- Collaboration within the UN system
UN Human Rights is a member of the Secretary-General’s Reference Group and contributed to the development of his Strategy on New Technologies in 2018. The OHCHR was co-champion of the follow-up on two human rights-related recommendations of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. The outcomes of this process were the basis of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, presented in June 2020.
UN Human Rights also participates in the UNESCO-led process to develop ethical standards for AI.
In addition, the OHCHR is a member of the Legal Identity Agenda Task Force, which promotes solutions for the implementation of SDG target 16.9 (i.e. by 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration). The OHCHR co-leads their work on biometrics.
The UNHRC has developed an e-learning tool to assist government officials from least developed countries and Small Islands Developing States as per the mandate of the Trust Fund to develop competencies on the UNHRC and its mechanisms.