The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association (Special Rapporteur), Clément Voule, has published his report to the Human Rights Council on the opportunities and challenges facing the rights to peaceful assembly and association in the digital age.
The report finds that international law protects the rights to freedom of assembly and association, whether exercised in person, through technologies of today, or through technologies that will be invented in the future. Furthermore, existing international human rights norms and principles should dictate both state conduct and serve as the framework that guides digital technology companies’ design, control and governance of digital technologies. In this regard, the report states that:
While the digital age has opened new space for the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, it has also brought a range of new threats and risks to these fundamental rights. Severe legal restrictions, and government practices in digital surveillance, for example, risk eliminating the space in which civil society can promote or defend collectively a field of mutual interest. Digital technology companies’ actions and inaction have exacerbated these risks or created complex new challenges for individuals and organizations that seek to exercise assembly and association rights online and offline. These challenges are likely to intensify in an increasingly digital future.
States should ensure that the rights of peaceful assembly and association are respected, protected and implemented in national legal frameworks, policies and practices, in accordance with international law. Digital technology companies must commit to respect freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and carry out due diligence to ensure that they do not cause, contribute to or become complicit in violation of these rights. In fulfilling their respective responsibilities, States and digital technology companies should comply with well-established principles of non-discrimination, pluralism of views, transparency, multi-stakeholder participation, and access to justice.
Key recommendations contained in the report include the following:
- Recommendations for states:
- States should promote and facilitate access to digital technologies, and should not put restrictions on their use for the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
- States should be aware that online association and assembly play a particularly important role for marginalised groups, and interference with the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association can have a disproportionate impact on individuals and groups in vulnerable positions.
- States should prohibit the use of surveillance techniques for the indiscriminate and untargeted surveillance of those exercising the right to peaceful assembly and association, both in physical spaces and online.
- States should refrain from unduly conducting targeted surveillance using digital tools against civil society actors, protest organisers, minorities and others seeking to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
- States should end all acts of government-sponsored online trolling, intimidation and disinformation targeted at civil society actors.
- Recommendations to digital technology companies:
- Companies should meet their responsibility to respect internationally accepted human rights, including the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, by taking all necessary and lawful measures to ensure that they do not cause, contribute to or become complicit in human rights abuses.
- Companies should adopt a high-level policy commitment to respect freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and recognise the importance of the role of civil society in democracy and sustainable development.
- Companies should seek to prevent or mitigate the adverse human rights impacts of their involvement, to the maximum extent allowed by law, whenever they are requested by states to censor, surveil or monitor individuals or groups or to make available data that they collect, process or retain.
- Companies should recognise international human rights law as the authoritative framework for ensuring that peaceful assembly and association rights are respected in their products and services and should evaluate their policies accordingly.
- Companies should introduce independent oversight mechanisms to monitor the outcome of content moderation decisions, and states should consider regulation that requires such independent oversight.
- Recommendations to civil society organisations:
- Civil society actors should continue to innovate and partner with governments, companies and academia to develop technology that facilitates the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
- Civil society actors should ensure that digital security and digital literacy are at the core of their organisation’s activities.
- Civil society actors should expand and improve data collection on – and documentation of digital threats to – the rights of association and assembly: in particular with respect to legal developments, network disruptions, surveillance, online harassment and disinformation campaigns.
- All civil society groups, not just digital rights organisations, should be supportive and engaged in the process of understanding digital threats to civic space and developing effective responses to threats.
The full report is accessible here.
Please note: The information contained in this note is for general guidance on matters of interest, and does not constitute legal advice. For any enquiries, please contact us at [email protected].