The 51st Session of the Human Rights Council
12 September - 7 October 2022
Agenda Item 4 - Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
Annual Discussion on Integration of a Gender Perspective
Theme: Overcoming gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression
26th September 2022
By Lotte Eriksen Reitan / GICJ
The effective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression for women has been an important topic at the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council. On the 26th of September 2022, the annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective throughout the work of the Human Rights Council and that of its mechanisms took place. The discussion revolved around existing gender-based barriers that attempt to silence and exclude women from the public sphere and create a chilling effect. The opening statement was given by the director of the Thematic Engagement Special Procedures and Right to Development Division. Ms. Peggy Hicks, followed by the panellist’s Ms. Irene Khan, Ms. Julie Posetti, and Ms. Mitzi Jonelle Tan.
The panellists, State representatives, and NGOs pointed out that freedom of opinion and expression is the foundation of every democratic society and crucial for the enjoyment of other human rights. Unfortunately, women activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders still face harassment, sexual violence, discrimination, abuse, threats, and intimidation that seeks to suppress and mute their voices. Topics such as journalists' safety, climate change, online violence, and women’s participation in politics were central subjects under the discussion.
GICJ welcomes the annual discussion and believes that the effective exercise of the right for freedom of opinion and expression, both offline and online, is essential for the enjoyment of other human rights. However, this remains a distant goal for many women and girls. GICJ calls for States to eliminate all existing discriminatory legislation against women to ensure that the freedom of opinion and expression are upheld in the fight for gender equality.
The Human Rights Council adopted resolution 6/30 on integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations system in 2007. The resolution is aimed at strengthening the intersectional perspective of the Human Rights Council. The resolutions programme of work includes an annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective within its work and that of its mechanism.
Since 2008, the annual discussion has covered different themes on gender integration each year. The purpose of the discussion is that the Human Rights Council, States, and relevant stakeholders will have better understanding on the integration of a gender perspective within different themes and that they will learn from shared experiences and successful practices. To open the discussion, an elected individual starts with an opening statement and then panellists are given time for an initial presentation. The panellists interactive discussion is followed by interventions from the floor by State representatives, NGOs and NHRIs.
Concept Note on the Theme
The theme for this year’s panel discussion is ”Overcoming Gender-Based Barriers to Freedom of Opinion and Expression”. According to the concept note, the panel discussion aimed to foster a deeper understanding of the gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression, to explore how the gendered barriers to freedom of opinion and expression can be dismantled in a comprehensive and sustainable manner, and to discuss how the Council and its mechanism can contribute toward the gendered dimensions of freedom of opinion and expression.
As stated in the concept note, despite the impressive gains made by women, we live in a world where freedom of opinion and expression for women, girls, and people with diverse gender identities remains a distant goal. Gender-based discrimination is persistent and often combined with additional forms of discrimination. Hence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression plays a key role for achieving gender equality and for the enjoyment of other human rights and freedoms.
The resolution of the Council 23/2 addresses the right to freedom of opinion and expression and constitutes a fundamental pillar for building a democratic society and strengthening democracy. Further on, the Council also recognised that the effective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression is essential for the enjoyment of other human rights and freedoms. In resolution 44/12 and 38/5 the Council expresses concern that many forms of digital division remain, which undermines women and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
In report 76/258, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression analyses the challenges that women and people of diverse gender identities face, offline and online. She notes that states are failing to respect, protect, and fulfil womens’ equal right to freedom of opinion and expression and presents specific recommendations to them. Other special procedures within the system, such as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, have also addressed gender-based barriers on freedom of opinion and expression faced by women in the realisation of their right.
Panel Discussion on the Integration of a Gender Perspective
The opening statement was delivered by Ms. Peggy Hicks, director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures, and Right to Development Division of the UN Human Rights Office. She started with stating the importance of freedom of expression and opinion, referring to the fact that it’s the foundation of every democratic society and that it's essential for every human right. She mentioned several examples where women and girls have taken the lead for change, such as the MeToo movement, but that the world is facing new and growing threats to women that speak out in defence of their rights.
Ms. Hicks said that human rights defenders are at particularly high risk, facing threats and attacks from different actors, both online and offline. She stated that in 2021, there was a five percent increase in the number of women human rights defenders and journalists who have been killed. She urged for change so that women, girls, and people with diverse gender identities can speak up freely. She ended the opening statement saying that it’s crucial that we not only accept the recommendations from the Human Rights Council, but also act on them.
Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, was the first panellist. She began by drawing attention to her report (A/76/258) on freedom of opinion and expression presented to the General Assembly in 2021. Based on the report, Khan highlighted 3 challenges women’s face: (1) gendered censorship is so pervasive that gender equality in freedom of expression remains a distant goal, (2) women pay a disproportionate price for speaking up and (3) women have unequal access to information and the internet. She urged the States and social media platforms to act urgently within the framework of international human rights law and to remove gender digital divides for all women. She brought up the critical political situation in Iran, where the death of 22-year-old Mahsma Amini recently started protests all over the world. She ended her statement by calling on the Human Rights Council to remark on the anniversary of resolution 23/2 with another resolution in 2023.
Ms. Mariana Duarte spoke on behalf of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). She pointed out that gendered violence keeps women from speaking up about politics and that it is used as a structural tactic to silence women. She talked about the findings from three IPU studies from 2016, 2018 and 2021, highlighting that more than 80 % of female parliamentarians had experienced psychological violence. She talked about IPUs Committee on Human Rights of Parliamentarians as a unique mechanism and stated that we must encourage women to use the mechanisms that exist. To conclude, she stressed the need for parliaments and political parties to take action. She stated that IPU can see change in parliaments recognising the sexism women face in politics, but that we still need to create greater accountability and strengthen the legal framework.
Ms. Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists, started by saying that gender-based online violence against journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom that is designed to silence, humiliate, and discredit women. She stated that the online violence does not only stay online, but is correlated with offline attacks, harassment, and abuse. Even though states are the main duty-bearers regarding journalists’ protection, she claimed that several governments have been an active part of the violence women journalists face. To conclude, she encouraged the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms to keep contributing to spread awareness about the journalists’ situation and consider a United Nations-level conduit to channel complaints against State actors engaged in targeted online violence campaigns.
Finally, Ms. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Convenor and International Spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, talked about the danger climate defenders and activists are facing. The fight for climate justice includes gender justice, where women and girls are more prone to violations that aim to silence them. In that regard, she brought up how important the access to quality education is to make girls able to be active members of the society. Ms. Tan said that States and the Human Rights Council need to actively consult women, especially from the most marginalised classes, and that there should be more stringent rules on protecting human rights abuses against women.
The discussion that followed involved many groups of countries, as well as NGOs. The European Union delegate, explicitly supported by Ireland, Cyprus, and Luxemburg, stated that overcoming gender-based barriers on freedom of opinion and expression can be extremely challenging. These barriers are often rooted in social attitudes, cultural norms, and patriarchal values, besides being imposed, or integrated in discriminatory laws, policies, and practices. Additionally, she highlighted that special attention should be given to the multiple forms of discrimination and the reality that restrictions to freedom of opinion and expression can have wider impacts on human rights. Therefore, it is crucial to break the cycle of gender stereotypes which ultimately impacts entire societies. She ended the statement by questioning what effective ways there are to promote and protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression for all women, especially online.
Various groups of western countries stressed the importance of taking an inclusive approach and proactively also engaging men and boys when taking measures to address the extent of the problem, especially for the safety of journalists. The delegate of the Netherlands asked the panellists how the Council can contribute to make sure that women journalists and other media workers can do their work effectively and safely.
The delegate of Chile spoke on behalf of several countries in South America. Like many others, she stated that freedom of opinion and expression is a fundamental right for all other rights and is crucial for achieving substantive gender equality. She stated that many women and girls fear systematic illegal barriers to exercise this very freedom. Therefore, it is important to establish good practice recommendations that can serve as a guide to shape policies and programmes to get the full eradication of gender-based discrimination. She urged the Council's mandate to ensure this principle for all individuals, guaranteeing the promotion for respect of human rights for all people.
The delegate of Egypt was positive about the opportunity to highlight challenges and share practices which the discussion facilitated. He focused on the situation in Egypt and mentioned that the State was one of the first to launch a national women empowerment strategy by 2030 and that new legislation acts were adopted to achieve empowerment and protection for women. In conclusion, he stated that it was expected that the annual debate would focus on the family, but that it was regrettable that the concept note had an biassed vision about the human rights of women.
The delegate of Slovenia, on behalf a group of countries, specified that protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression is a powerful tool to confront any form of gender-based discrimination and lay at the heart of the international legal framework on political and civil rights. She especially welcomed the UN youth office, and expressed the need for the international community to invest more to ensure that women can express their opinion in all spheres of public domain.
The delegate of the United States focused mostly on gender-based online harassment. The delegate addressed the global partnership agreement from the March 2022 Commission on the Status of Women and President Biden's establishment of the White House Task Force. She stated that the global partnership countries had 3 strategic objectives on technology facilitated gender-based violence: (1) develop of international best practises and principles that define certain form of gender-based online harassment and abuse, (2) focus resources on preventing and responding to gender-based online harassment and abuse, and (3) improve the regular collection of comparable data on gender-based online harassment and abuse.
The delegate of Afghanistan highlighted the situation for many women in the country. She highlighted how many women are forced into early marriages and unable to attend school and access justice. She said that the Taliban’s policy can only be called gender apartheid and that this was the worst womens’ rights crises in the world. She urged the Council to establish a dedicated accountability mechanism for Afghanistan.
The NGOs underlined the importance of the Council to fulfil its obligations under resolution 6/30 and to ensure the active and meaningful participation of women within the UN. Several of them clarified how their organisation is organised to ensure that women play a central role in their work. They also asked the panellists how multi-governmental organisations can help overcome barriers for womens’ right to freedom of opinion and expression.
In their closing statements, all of the panellists recognized that gender-based violence is continuing on the rise and is a critical concern. Ms. Duarte expressed the importance of also educating men and boys from an early age. She said that specific measures are important, but that we need to look at the political system as a whole and that the more women there are in parliaments, the more acceptance there will be.
Ms. Posetti focused on the issue of impunity for crimes against journalists, and that gender disinformation and gendered hate speech are key points. She also discussed a book with a 25-step plan for states' response to gender-based violence that will be published in November.
Ms. Tan called on states to play a role in the empowerment of the most marginalised lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and women and said that these people are becoming more vulnerable to climate injustice. She said that she appreciated everything that was discussed during the session, but that States needed to be more proactive and urged a holistic approach in all aspects of work.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
As stated by several participants during the session, Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) believes that exercising freedom of opinion and expression without fear is a fundamental right for women, girls, and people with diverse gender identities to access justice and enjoy their human rights. Countries that protect the right for freedom of opinion and expression increase the citizens ability to access their social, political, economic, and cultural rights by providing every woman their right to be heard.
GICJ acknowledges all efforts being made on integrating the human rights of women throughout the United Nations and the increased focus on womens’ right to be heard all over the world. Yet, GICJ is concerned about national legislation that criminalises people who speak out in a peaceful manner. National legislation should prohibit hateful speech towards individuals or groups in the public sphere, but there are many governments that are abusing their authority to pass laws that criminalise expressions that are a precondition for a well-functioning democracy. GICJ calls for States to eliminate all existing discriminatory legislation against women, to ensure that the freedom of opinion and expression are upheld in the fight for gender equality.
GICJ believes that technology and the internet are incredible opportunities for advancing womens’ rights. Womens’ participation online has become important for their access to information, social interaction, healthcare, work, business, and education. We must make sure that these opportunities are given to women and that the system is built for every gender. It is crucial that all relevant stakeholders are acting to end the perpetuation of sexual and gender-based violence online. In that regard, social media platforms need to take greater responsibility and act to remove gender digital divide.
HCR51, Human Rights Council, Gender Perspective, Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Women’s Rights, Human Rights, Justice, Human Rights, Geneva, geneva4justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre for Justice