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SA votes for weaker Internet rights

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The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has adopted a resolution on “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet” – but South Africa joined a bloc led by Russia and China to weaken it.

The resolution on human rights on the Internet is the joint initiative of Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, and the US.

It reaffirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. This fundamental principle was the basis of two previous HRC resolutions, also adopted by consensus, in 2012 and 2014

The resolution is a significant political commitment by states, based on their existing obligations under international human rights law, to:

* Address security concerns on the Internet in accordance with their obligations to protect freedom of expression, privacy and other human rights online;

* Ensure accountability for all human rights violations and abuses committed against persons for exercising their human rights, including for extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention. This encompasses ensuring the release of those imprisoned for legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression rights, and ensuring that any attack against bloggers or other Internet users is effectively investigated and perpetrators held to account.

* Desist and refrain from “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online”. This includes measures to shut down the Internet or part of the Internet at any time, in particular at times where access to information is critical, such as during an election, or in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

* Adopt a “human rights based approach” to provide and expand access to the Internet, with particular regard to addressing the gender digital divide, and to promote Internet access for persons with disabilities. The importance of civil society and technical community participation in related processes is also recognised.

The resolution also recognises that a global and open Internet is crucial to achieving the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

“The resolution is a much-needed response to increased pressure on freedom of expression online in all parts of the world”, says Hughes, executive director of civil liberties organisation Article 19. “From impunity for the killings of bloggers to laws criminalising legitimate dissent on social media, basic human rights principles are being disregarded to impose greater controls over the information we see and share online.

“Governments must now act on the international commitments in this resolution to protect freedom of expression and other human rights online, at all times,” Hughes adds.

Although the resolution was adopted by consensus, it faced opposition from a minority of states.

Russian Federation and China led amendments to the resolution aimed to delete calls for states to adopt a “human rights based approach” for providing and expanding access to the Internet, and remove key references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and language on freedom of expression from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“We are disappointed that democracies like South Africa, Indonesia, and India voted in favour of these hostile amendments to weaken protections for freedom of expression online,” says Hughes. “A human rights-based approach to providing and expanding Internet access, based on states’ existing international human rights obligations, is essential to achieving the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, and no state should be seeking to slow this down.”