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UN experts issue joint statement centring digital rights in pandemic recovery

"Pandemic recovery: Digital rights key to inclusive and resilient world", 4 June 2021

As the world rebuilds civic space during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, UN experts stress that human rights apply online, as offline, and digital rights must be a top priority.

"Despite the instrumental role of the internet and digital technologies, which have provided new avenues for the exercise of public freedoms and access to health and related information and care in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, States continue to leverage these technologies to muzzle dissent, surveil, and quash online and offline collective action and the tech companies have done too little to avert such abuse of human rights," the experts said...

"We need to act together to embrace the fast-pace expansion of digital space and technological solutions that are safe, inclusive and rights-based," nine U.N. human rights experts* said ahead of the annual RightsCon summit on human rights in the digital age from June 7-11.

COVID-19 recovery efforts to "build back better" must address serious threats contributing to the closing of civic space and suppression of free speech and media freedom, the experts said, along with ongoing global crises such as systemic violence, climate change, structural inequality, institutional racism, and gender-based violence.

They specifically pointed to internet shutdowns during peaceful protests, digital divides and accessibility barriers including to basic human rights and services, disinformation and misinformation; attacks independent and diverse media; algorithmic discrimination, online threats against human rights defenders, mass and targeted surveillance, cyberattacks and attempts to undermine encryption.

... The experts further called on companies to stop supplying governments with technologies — such as spyware tools and applications claiming to recognise faces, genders, disabilities and emotions — which reinforce risks for defenders and civil society actors when exercising their legitimate right to voice critical concerns and defend human rights. Businesses need to prevent and address these risks and avoid contributing consciously or inadvertently to further shrinking civic space.

* The experts: Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Clément Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment; Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Tlaleng Mofokeng , Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Dante Pesce (Chairperson), Surya Deva (Vice-Chairperson), Elżbieta Karska, Githu Muigai, and Anita Ramasastry, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights