Africa’s participation in digital rights debates at the UN Human Rights Council
Within the UN system, issues related to the promotion and protection of human rights in the digital space are more and more often finding their way on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
By December 2022, 35 African countries will have served as members of the HRC (Figure 34).1The Human Rights Council has 47 members elected by the UN General Assembly for a period of three years. Africa has 13 seats on the Council. The African countries with seats on the Council in 2022 are depicted in Table 10.
Figure 34. African countries to have served on the HRC by December 2022.
Table 10. African countries serving on the HRC in 2022.
In recent years, there has been some involvement of African countries in the submission of, and discussions on resolutions covering digital-related topics. For instance, Egypt was among the sponsors of the Resolution on neurotechnology and human rights. Adopted at the Council’s 51st session (September–October 2022), the resolution calls on the HRC’s Advisory Committee to prepare a study on the impact, opportunities, and challenges of neurotechnology with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights.2United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2022). Resolution A/HRC/51/3 – Neurotechnology and human rights.
Namibia was among the sponsors of a Resolution on freedom of opinion and expression adopted at the Council’s 50th session (June–July 2022). Among other provisions, the resolution calls on states to promote, protect, respect, and ensure the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression both online and offline, to address digital divides and promote digital literacy, and to refrain from imposing restrictions on the free flow of information.3United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2022). Resolution A/HRC/50/15 – Freedom of opinion and expression.
At the Council’s 49th session (February–April 2022), Tunisia was one of the sponsors of the Resolution on the role of states in countering the negative impact of disinformation and the enjoyment and realisation of human rights, which raised issues related to the misuse of digital technologies to disseminate misinformation.4United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2022). Resolution A/HRC/49/21 – Role of states in countering the negative impact of disinformation on the enjoyment and realisation of human rights.
For the Council’s 48th session (September–October 2021), Tunisia was among the initial sponsors of the Resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age.5United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2021). Resolution A/HRC/48/4 – Right to privacy in the digital age. Botswana, Mali, and South Africa joined the sponsors after the resolution was adopted.
At the 47th session (June–July 2021), Nigeria and Tunisia were among the initial sponsors of the Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.6United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2021). Resolution A/HRC/47/16 – The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. Libya and Somalia joined the list of sponsors later on, with Botswana, Ghana, and Mali doing the same after the adoption of the resolution. When the resolution was put to vote, Cameroon abstained, while Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, and Togo voted in favour.
During the same session, a second resolution on digital issues was adopted – Resolution on new and emerging digital technologies and human rights.7United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2021). Resolution A/HRC/47/23 – New and emerging digital technologies and human rights. Morocco, Somalia, and Tunisia were among the resolution’s initial sponsors, and were subsequently joined by Libya. Botswana and Mali joined the resolution’s sponsors after it was adopted. Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, and Togo voted in favour of the resolution, while Eritrea abstained.
The Resolution on freedom of opinion and expression – adopted at the HRC’s 44th session (June–July 2020) – had Namibia and Tunisia among its initial co-sponsors. Botswana and Ghana joined the sponsors later on. The resolution reaffirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online and calls on member states to facilitate and promote access to and use of communications and digital technologies.8United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC]. (2020). Resolution A/HRC/44/12 – Freedom of opinion and expression.
There has also been some level of engagement of African countries in overall discussions related to digital issues during HRC sessions, as the following examples illustrate.9This overview is based on statements made during HRC discussions.
At the 50th session, during a discussion on the protection of human rights during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, South Africa highlighted the widening digital divides between and within countries and called for consideration of how to best use new technologies to strengthen good governance, promote and protect human rights, and support equitable and inclusive post-pandemic recovery efforts. Togo called for coordinated efforts at the regional and international levels to ensure that human rights are properly considered when it comes to governing and regulating digital technologies. In a debate on disinformation and human rights, Egypt expressed concerns over the use of electronic platforms to spread fake news and extremist and terrorist content, and called for strengthened cooperation between all stakeholders in developing codes of conduct to guarantee the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression without infringing on the freedoms of others.
During the high-level segment of the Council’s 49th session, Nigeria referred to the need to address the spread of fake news, hate speech, and incitement to hatred and violence. When the Council discussed children rights, Botswana, Cameroon, Namibia, and Tunisia spoke about the urgency of protecting children in the digital space – including with regard to online content related to child sexual exploitation and abuse.
During an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Togo called for strengthened mechanisms for privacy protection and information security, in the context of international cooperation, while Cameroon referred to legislation and capacity building initiatives put in place at the national level to ensure privacy and data protection and address cybercrime-related challenges. Algeria expressed concern over practices involving the illegal use of spyware, noting that these constitute not only human rights violations, but also threats to peace, security, and international cooperation. The country suggested that consideration is given to the introduction of measures against such practices, including safeguards, effective monitoring and redress procedures, and codes of conduct. Egypt highlighted the importance of ensuring that the right to privacy extends to the digital space and called for adequate attention to be paid to the challenges posed by AI and other modern technologies.
At the 47th session, during the discussion on technical cooperation to advance the right to education and ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and life learning from all, the African Group (through a joint declaration) drew attention, among other issues, to the growing digital divide and its implications on the provision of educational services. The countries also called on international institutions to provide nations with technical assistance in their efforts to modernise their educational systems so that they respond to current and future needs driven by digital transformation processes.
When HRC members discussed the impacts, opportunities, and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies regarding the promotion and protection of human rights, at the 44th session, Ghana underscored the need for states to maintain and enforce individual rights and liberties when designing and deploying digital technologies for meeting public policy objectives. It also called on states to uphold international norms and principles in particular as they related to personal data protection and cybersecurity and invited countries to accede to key international instruments such as the Budapest and Malabo Conventions. The need for data governance rules was also highlighted: ‘We need to consider putting in place data governance rules, ie, who owns the tons of data that we put online, how it is managed and used, who shares the benefits and of the monetisation and application of this data’.10Remarks by Ms Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister for Communications of Ghana during the Panel Discussion on the impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights, HRC 44th session, 8 July 2022. Morocco spoke about the implications that new technologies could have at economic, cultural, and political levels, and highlighted the importance of ensuring that policymakers properly understand these technologies and their implications.
Nigeria and Tunisia (in a joint statement with Brazil and Sweden) called on states to respect all human rights online and offline, to enhance access to open, free and secure ICTs, and refrain from internet shutdowns and online surveillance and censorship measures. In a statement issued by the Non-Aligned Movement, African nations and their partners underlined the need to bridge digital divides, called for an end to the use of ICTs in contradiction with the norms and principles of international law (‘including those related to sovereignty, sovereign equality, and territorial integrity of the UN member states’), and noted the ‘importance of international and multistakeholder cooperation in order to bridge the digital divides, benefit from opportunities and address the challenges arising from the rapid technological change which affects states in different ways due to their national realities, capacities and levels of development’.11Statement delivered by Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Panel Discussion on the impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights, HRC 44th session, 8 July 2022.