Human Rights Council
According to the UN Human Rights Council website, ‘the Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. It meets at the UN Office at Geneva.’ Two important mechanisms for freedom of expression and media freedom will be discussed, the Universal Periodic Review and Special Procedures.
1. Universal Periodic Review
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is the ‘human rights exam’ all UN Member States take every 5 years. 42 States are peer-reviewed in Geneva each year during three Working Group sessions. The UPR is a unique mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC) aimed at improving the human rights situation on the ground of each of the 193 United Nations (UN) Member States. NGOs can actively contribute to the UPR process through so-called stakeholder submissions.
Each UPR review is based on 3 reports about the human rights situation from the State under Review (SuR) that are produced by 1.) the State under review, 2.) civil society and national human rights institutes, and 3.) the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
During the UPR Working Group review at the Human Rights Council, all governments can provide recommendations to the SuR for improvements to their laws and policies. The SuR will be represented at the UPR itself, where they will respond to these recommendations. At the end of the review the SuR can accept or ignore recommendations made. An ‘outcome’ document is produced after the dialogue. This document includes recommendations given to the SuR. When they accept a recommendation, States are expected to implement it. The outcome document is officially adopted during the regular meeting of the Human Rights Council.
Geneva-based NGO UPR-Info, established in 2008, raises awareness on the use of the UPR and provides capacity-building tools to NGOs who want to engage in the UPR process. On their website one can find all information about States under Review, roadmaps, resources about how to engage and more. They also organise UPR pre-sessions where civil society actors who have made a stakeholder submission can engage with the government representatives of the State under Review, other civil society actors and Geneva-based delegates of the Permanent Missions of UN Member States.
The Danish Institute for Human Rights has developed the Human Rights Data Explorer. It is a one-stop database containing all recommendations made to UN Member States that can be filtered to explore human rights recommendations and their connections to the 2030 Agenda on SDG target level, including 16.10 (see below).
Read more on the UPRUPR page of United Nations Human Rights Council (This website contains all relevant documentation, including recommendations and responses by and dates of states under review)
Tutorials (including tests) on the UPR process (Geneva-based NGO UPR Info has made these short slide presentations giving you a short run-down of what the UPR is)
The Civil Society Compendium. A comprehensive guide for Civil Society Organisations engaging in the Universal Periodic Review
UPR Info Pre-sessions: Empowering human rights voices from the ground (Information guide about the pre-sessions organised by UPR Info, an advocacy opportunity to engage state representatives in Geneva before the ‘human rights exam’ takes place)
2. Special Procedures
According to the UN Human Rights Council website, ‘[t]he Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures mandate holders are made up of special rapporteurs, independent experts or working groups composed of five members who are appointed by the Council and who serve in their personal capacity. Special procedures mandate holders undertake country visits; act on individual cases and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States and other actors bringing alleged violations or abuses to their attention; conduct thematic studies and convene expert consultations; contribute to the development of international human rights standards; engage in advocacy; raise public awareness; and provide advice for technical cooperation.’
Contact the Special Rapporteur
On the Protecting Defenders website, you can find information how a Special Rapporteur works and how they can be contacted (in this case the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders).
There are multiple rapporteurs who work on themes that overlap with freedom of expression and media freedom issues, such as cultural rights, minority issues, arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances. See the OHCHR website for an up to date overview of Special Rapporteurs on various themes and their contact details. We will highlight one of them here.
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression
On the website of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan, one can find information on international and regional standards, annual thematic reports and comments on legislation and policy. The first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993, she is a former editor of the Daily Star in Bangladesh and former Secretary General of Amesty International.
Read more on the Special RapporteurMore about the mandate and working method of the Special Rapporteur:
The website of the previous UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye is a useful repository i.a. containing thematic reports, joint declarations on freedom of expression as well as resources to understand, track and respond to disinformation:
Similar mechanism also appear at regional level where human rights commission and regional courts play a fundamental role.
In 2004, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights established the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information who among other things analyses national media legislation, policies and practice within Member States; monitors their compliance with freedom of expression standards and advise Member States accordingly; and undertakes investigative missions to Member States where reports of massive violations of the right to freedom of expression are made and make appropriate recommendations to the African Commission.
The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ‘has jurisdiction over all cases and disputes submitted to it concerning the interpretation and application of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, (the Charter), the Protocol and any other relevant human rights instrument ratified by the States concerned […] It complements and reinforces the functions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.’
The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression i.a. advises the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, conducts visits to OAS Member States, provides technical advisory support and promotes and reports on the situation regarding right to freedom of thought and expression in OAS Member States. IACHR decisions can be found by topic on the page of the Special Rapporteur on the OAS website, and are classified under:
- Violence, threats and hostilities against members of the media
- Subsequent imposition of sanctions due to expression
- Direct and indirect censorship
- Access to information
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is one of two bodies established by the Organization of American States to monitor human rights in the Americas. The other is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Court was created to safeguard the rights enshrined in the Convention.
The EU is not a regional or international organisation. It has a completely different status and functions. Human rights protection is not a direct competence of the EU institutions as it remains in the hands of member States and/or the Council of Europe. While there is no mechanism such as a special representative as in the international and regional systems, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and media pluralism are the responsibilities of the EU Commissioner Values and Transparency and Vice-President Věra Jourová.
However, other Commissioners also have responsibilities that directly or indirectly affect the enabling environment for the media. This includes Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, responsible for the enforcement and reviewing of EU market competition rules, big data and artificial intelligence. And Vice-President and High Representative Joseph Borrell, responsible for Democracy and Human Rights within the External Action of the EU.
The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) ‘is in charge of most of the legislation and democratic oversight for policies enabling the European Union to offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice (Article 3 TEU)’.
Council of Europe
There are multiple bodies that are concerned with issues of freedom of expression and media freedom. Without going into detail of their mandates, these are:
- The Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law has overall responsibility for the development and implementation of the human rights and rule of law standards of the Council of Europe. These cover the protection of freedom of expression and of information in the information society and of media freedoms; and the promotion of independent, pluralistic media
- The Information Society and Action against Crime Directorate i.a. is responsible for the Council of Europe’s work on the media and information society. The Directorate’s activities comprise standard setting, monitoring and cooperation activities on a wide variety of issues, including freedom of expression, data protection, internet governance and artificial intelligence.
- The Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists. For more information, see our Safety Resource Guide.
- European Audiovisual Observatory, a reference for market and legal information which issues the monthly IRIS Newsletter reports on the most important legal developments for the audiovisual industry in 39 European countries.
On the Council of Europe’s Media Freedom Alerts site, you can find up-to-date information on press freedom incidents and the status of government actions or responses.
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, observes media developments in the 57 participating states and provides early warning on violations of free expression and media freedom. The Representative observes 8 issue areas: decriminalisation of defamation, digital switchover, hate speech, media freedom on the internet, media laws, media pluralism, media self-regulation and safety of journalists, with a specific focus on safety of female journalists online. The webpage of each issue contains a number of key resources such as reports of the Representative, state commitments, guidebooks.