Statement: The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online

41st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and association 
Joint statement by ICNL, Article 19, CIVICUS, ECNL, and World Movement for Democracy

Activists, peaceful protesters, and civil society have harnessed the power of the Internet and digital technologies, to share information, and to build and mobilise communities at unprecedented scale and speed. 

Whilst this Council has repeatedly affirmed the maxim that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online,” online civic space is under intense, and increasing pressure, worldwide. 

We therefore share the Special Rapporteur’s concern that many States, including members of this Council, misuse emerging technologies to surveil civil society groups and peaceful protesters, harass human rights defenders online, deliberately obstruct access to online information, and abuse vague legislation restricting online expression to target dissenting voices. 

In Sudan, we condemn the recent Internet shutdowns by the TMC, in an attempt to conceal the brutality of the unlawful and wholly disproportionate crackdown by the military against protesters, including the use of lethal force and disturbing accounts of sexual violence. This Council must hold Sudan to account, including by establishing a fact-finding mission. 

In Russia, merely posting about a protest online can attract reprisals. Just this month, prominent opposition activist Leonid Volkov - who webcast a protest in September 2018 - was arbitrarily detained for his alleged role in “organising” a protest and “inciting disorder”. 

In Turkey, the presence of secure communication apps on individuals’ devices has been used as the basis of bogus terrorism charges against journalists, and civil society. 

In Liberia this month, targeted shutdowns saw access to social media, email services and news agencies cut off in response to protests against state corruption.

These and all other efforts to frustrate the exercise of assembly and association rights online, and choke off civic space, demand the urgent attention of this Council. Our organisations encourage the Special Rapporteur to continue his work on this important area.

Mr President, 

We agree that as “gatekeepers” to online spaces, the private sector plays a vital role in safeguarding civic space online. The Ruggie Principles on business and human rights provide a clear framework to ensure human rights standards guide their policies and practices.