Can the Universal Periodic Review hold governments accountable on digital rights?
The Universal Periodic Review can highlight that online rights are an essential part of human rights and that everyone’s digital rights should be protected and promoted.
Since the signing of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, people and governments have become used to discussing human rights and their country’s records on them, while the concept of human rights online is still quite new.
The Human Rights Council (HRC) only passed its first resolution on human rights online in 2012; however, in subsequent years there have been dozens of UN resolutions reinforcing the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights online.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique and state-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, that involves a review of the human rights records of all 193 United Nations (UN) Member States. The UPR provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries. The first UPR cycle ran from 2008 to 2011; the second from 2012 to 2016; and the third from 2017 to 2021.
The UPR can be a good way for arguing that human rights online are universal and for holding governments to account on how they treat their citizens’ human rights online.
There are many examples available that reflect the possibilities for the advancement of rights online in relation to the UPR process. In Bangladesh, the Center for Social Activism and others raised a number of human rights issues and violations in their joint submission to the country’s Universal Periodic Review in 2018, including several recent killings of online activists, an ongoing lack of press freedom, and state-sanctioned censorship. The report outlined several recommendations, many of which were subsequently accepted by the government.
2018 was a key year for the recognition of online fundamental rights.
During 2018's UPR process in Cameroon, the government accepted several recommendations that reflected points raised in a joint submission by Access Now, ADISI-Cameroun, APC and Internet Sans Frontières, relating to the rights to peaceful assembly, association and expression online, and unlawful restrictions on internet and mobile service provision.
In addition, Chile is an important example of progress achieved through the UPR: 2018 was a key year for the recognition of online fundamental rights, its importance and the need to have instruments to promote and protect them in that country. In sight of the 32nd session of United Nations' UPR, Chilean non-governmental organisation Derechos Digitales, with the support of other organisations, embarked on the task of ensuring that the protection of the different ways in which people exercise their rights online were part of the list of recommendations received by the Chilean state.
The effort paid off and numerous states made recommendations related to online rights, particularly on women's rights, protection of privacy and the need to improve the standard in the use of surveillance technologies. This achievement provided Chileans with instruments that ensure greater attention to issues related to fundamental rights in cyberspace.
The Universal Periodic Review matters because of the reach, the participation and the impact it can have on all of our human rights.
As seen above, the UPR process can highlight that online rights are an essential part of human rights as well as emphasize that everyone’s rights should be protected and promoted online. The UPR can also put in evidence the gaps between what a government says about online rights and what it does about them.
It is also useful to underline that other human rights are affected as a result of online human rights violations. In this sense, the UPR can spark other human rights campaigns and legal challenges.
The review can also help shine a light, at a national and international level, on the other human rights situations that journalists—along with human rights and civil society organizations—face.
However, one of the most outstanding challenges faced by CSOs engaging in the UPR is to make their recommendations heard within an extensive range of equally important and legitimate petitions made by other organizations. This means CSOs have to rely on their own resources available to intervene in this state-led—therefore political—process to build coalitions, develop strong evidence-based reports, monitor and follow up on recommendations, organize consultations nationally and, if possible, travel to Geneva. Unless a CSO has adequate funding, many of these activities are unattainable, particularly for smaller organizations, who may end up staying out of the process altogether without the right support.
Another challenge is that even though states are required to express their positions on each recommendation received, the outcome of the review is not binding. This means that the effectiveness of the UPR for making changes at the national level can depend on how genuine the state under review is about improving its human rights record.
Nonetheless, the Universal Periodic Review matters because of the reach, the participation and the impact it can have on all of our human rights. It improves accountability, all governments take part, it covers a broad range of human rights obligations, and it’s accessible. The UPR can be a good way for arguing that human rights online are universal and for holding governments to account on how they treat their citizens’ human rights online.
Drawing on APC's experience engaging in the UPR process, in partnership with Advocacy Assembly we have just launched a free, online course that is suitable for activists and human rights defenders who plan to take part in the UPR. This course provides an overview of how the Universal Periodic Review works and serves as a guide for civil society organizations to advance human rights and digital rights.