Human Rights Council Holds Annual Discussion on Integration of Gender Perspective

OHCHR

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held its annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective, focusing on overcoming gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression. It also continued its general debate under agenda item four on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.

Introducing the annual discussion, Peggy Hicks, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said freedom of opinion and expression was essential for the protection of every human right; the realisation of achieving this right was essential for achieving gender equality. There were new and growing threats to women and girls who spoke out in defence of their rights. Gender equality needed to be achieved. Measures to achieve this should include eliminating repressive legislation, adopting special measures for social protection, and including women’s rights in school education.

Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said the Internet had become the new battleground in the struggle for women’s rights, amplifying the opportunities for women to access information and express themselves, but also creating new risks of repression and inequality. There was a clear link between the root causes of gender inequality, and the persistence of gendered censorship. Governments must abolish laws, policies, and practices of gendered censorship, and be more proactive in dismantling the structural and systemic roots of gender discrimination.

Mariana Duarte, Programme Officer, Gender Partnership Programme, Inter-Parliamentary Union, said that the main gender-based barrier observed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on freedom of opinion and expression for women in politics was gendered violence. This violence was directed at women as a group, and aimed to eject them from the political arena. Eliminating gender-based violence in politics was essential for women to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. It was also a guarantee for the effectiveness of parliament, for genuine democracy and for gender equality in society.

Julie Posetti, International Centre for Journalists, said gender-based online violence against journalists was one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom and the safety of women journalists internationally. It aided and abetted impunity for crimes against journalists, including physical assault and murder. It was designed to silence, humiliate, and discredit. The Human Rights Council could contribute to raising awareness of violence against women journalists by, among other points, ensuring that mechanisms and protocols to defend the safety of journalists and end impunity explicitly addressed violence against women journalists.

Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Convenor and International Spokesperson, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, said across the world the dangers against environmental defenders and activists were rising. Young girls, especially those most economically marginalised, who were fighting for human rights and climate justice were often belittled, pushed aside, and tokenised. Sexual violence was also used to silence women defenders, much of which was underreported. There should be more stringent rules on protecting human rights abuses against women.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers said overcoming gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression could be extremely challenging, as these barriers were often rooted in social attitudes, cultural norms and patriarchal values, besides being imposed or integrated in discriminatory laws, policies and practices. Moreover, some harmful, implicit social norms often constituted root causes for gender-based discrimination and for undermining women’s and girls’ rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, both online and offline. The international community needed to invest more to ensure that girls and young women could openly form their opinions in all spheres of public domain, including within this Council and other United Nations fora.

Speaking in the annual discussion were the European Union on behalf of a group of countries, Lithuania on behalf of a group of countries, Chile on behalf of a group of countries, Slovenia on behalf of a group of countries, Bahamas on behalf of a group of countries, Netherlands on behalf of a group of countries, Belgium on behalf of a group of countries, Australia on behalf of a group of countries, Israel, Egypt, International Development Law Organization, Timor-Leste on behalf of the Portuguese language countries, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Republic of Korea, Ireland, France, United Nations Children’s Fund, Colombia, United Nations Women, Afghanistan, Cyprus, and United States.

Also speaking were the Federation for Women and Family Planning, CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales Asociación Civil, Indonesia, Plan International Inc, Stitching Global Human Rights Defense, and Asia-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women.

In the general debate on agenda item four, some speakers said accountability must be ensured for all violations of the rights of indigenous and minority peoples. Violence against human rights defenders must also come to an end. The High Commissioner had a mandate to report on violations of human rights and to oversee progress made. Upholding the rights to freedom of assembly and of peaceful expression was crucial for the protection of human rights. Human rights were indivisible and all inherent to the dignity of the human person, whether economic, social and cultural rights or civil and political rights, and required the equal treatment and observation of the Council. There was a wide repression of women’s rights, with an erosion of their rights to be seen in many areas of the world, with a rise in gender apartheid, which required collective action against institutionalised discrimination. The Council should ensure utmost transparency when dealing with human rights matters and that the principles of the United Nations Charter were fully respected.

Speaking in the general debate were Iceland, Israel, Bahrain, Ireland, Russia Federation, Australia, Afghanistan, Austria, Cyprus, Norway, Lichtenstein, Estonia, South Sudan, Denmark, Azerbaijan, Canada, Uruguay, Belgium, Kenya, Sweden, Georgia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Burundi, Kyrgyzstan, Barbados, Spain, Syria, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Iran, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Belarus, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam and Egypt.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-first regular session can be found here.

The next meeting of the Council will be at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 27 September when it will hold a panel discussion on the right to work in connection with climate change actions, followed by the continuation of the general debate under agenda item four.

General Debate on Human Rights Situations that Require the Council’s Attention

The general debate on agenda item four on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention started in the previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Some speakers said accountability must be ensured for all violations of the rights of indigenous and minority peoples. Violence against human rights defenders must also come to an end. The shrinking of civic space in many parts of the world was of grave concern. The High Commissioner had a mandate to report on violations of human rights and to oversee progress made. Upholding the rights to freedom of assembly and of peaceful expression was crucial for the protection of human rights. Human rights were indivisible and all inherent to the dignity of the human person, whether economic, social and cultural rights or civil and political rights, and required the equal treatment and observation of the Council.

There was a wide repression of women’s rights, with an erosion of their rights seen in many areas of the world, with a rise in gender apartheid, which required collective action against institutionalised discrimination. The response of the Human Rights Council and the Special Procedures could be further strengthened, commensurate to the situation on the ground, some speakers said. It was important to hold the perpetrators of gender-based violence to account. Countries that respected women’s rights were generally more peaceful, with a more stable economy, and should therefore work to respect women’s independence and protect their rights to a greater extent. Denying girls access to education impeded their social and economic development.

Human rights were a prerequisite for sustainable development, and human rights issues ought to be dealt with on the global stage through technical cooperation and assistance on the request of the country concerned, so that human rights projects could be supported, in full respect of the sovereignty of all countries, bearing in mind the cultural and historical specificities of each State, a speaker said. There should be greater international cooperation. The world was witnessing human rights violations and violations of fundamental freedoms, and a greater dialogue, including civil society, should be built throughout the world, ensuring States’ priorities were respected. One speaker said the inconsistent application of human rights standards was harmful to the agenda of the Council, which should engage in dialogue on contentious issues, in a balanced manner, as it sought to promote and protect human rights around the world.

One speaker said item four on human rights situations that required the Council’s attention was one of the most divisive items on the agenda, as it was not always carried out in line with the principles and values that should lead the Council. The principles of impartiality and non-selectivity should be maintained. The Council was founded on the conviction that the promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world should be carried out through dialogue and with the participation of the country concerned, and this would serve the interests of the international community. The Council should ensure utmost transparency when dealing with human rights matters and that the principles of the United Nations Charter were fully respected. The independence and sovereign integrity of States were the fundamental norms governing international cooperation. One speaker expressed concern that the Council could be used to investigate matters that had not been confirmed or even authenticated.

A speaker said that while it was the weighty responsibility and sacred duty of the international community to intervene in situations of egregious violations of human rights, which had been corroborated by appropriate bodies following the requisite investigations, the untrammelled ability of individual States to conduct their internal affairs independently must not be proscribed, as it was counterproductive to the promotion and protection of human rights, and only increased polarisation among the Member States of the Council. Environments conducive to the fullest enjoyment of the rights of citizens of a country would be engendered with the cooperation of the international community through non-interference in the internal administration of the affairs of that country, and no State should impose its norms and standards upon others.

The global food security crisis and its concomitant impact on human rights was of concern to many speakers. Governments should ensure accountability and maintain stable peace. Violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms occurred in too many countries, and too many Governments used disinformation to hide their actions from the world at large: media freedom and reporting were essential to combat disinformation.

Annual Discussion on the Integration of a Gender Perspective Throughout the Work of the Human Rights Council, Focusing on Overcoming Gender-Based Barriers to Freedom of Opinion and Expression

Opening Statement

PEGGY HICKS, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights , said freedom of opinion and expression was essential for the protection of every human right; the realisation of achieving this right was essential for achieving gender equality. Movements such as “Me Too” had swept the globe, with women taking a public stance against the sexual violence against women and girls both online and offline. Women played a crucial role in fighting systemic racial discrimination. Today, as the struggle for gender equality continued, there were new and growing threats to women and girls who spoke out in defence of their rights. Gender stereotypes and the patriarchal structure continued to keep women into lesser and submissive roles. There were many ways in which women were silenced and excluded from the public and private spaces, including repressive and discriminatory legislation, policies and practices, and religious and cultural norms which fuelled the violations of rights. Too often attacks against women were amplified and encouraged by public figures, with those engaging the attacks rarely being held accountable.

Ms. Hicks said that the digital world still offered immense possibilities of engagement and ability to drive social change, however, it was increasingly better known for the offline world where women were subject to misogynistic attacks. There had been a five per cent increase in the number of women human rights defenders and journalists who had been killed in 2021. These attacks were exacerbated for women subjected to intersecting discrimination. Barriers contributed to the progressive exclusion of women and girls from the public sphere; this urgently needed to change. Gender equality needed to be achieved. Measures to achieve this should include eliminating repressive legislation, adopting special measures for social protection, and including women’s rights in school education. It was crucial to create an enabling environment for civil society to ensure advances in achieving women’s human rights were upheld. The Human Rights Council had drawn attention to the violations and risks and had made recommendations to address these. The Council had an essential role to play in addressing gender-based barriers and ensuring all could contribute to society regardless of their gender.

Statements by the Panellists

IRENE KHAN, Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression , said her first thematic report had found that while there had been achievements on gender equality, expression was not free for many women and girls. The Internet had become the new battleground in the struggle for women’s rights, amplifying the opportunities for women to access information and express themselves, but also creating new risks of repression and inequality. Gendered censorship was pervasive, and the monitoring, censoring, and criminalisation of women’s social behaviour by States was concerning. Under the guise of protecting public morals, as seen recently in the case of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman in Iran, it could lead to serious violations of human rights, with tragic consequences. Women also played a disproportionate price for speaking out, with sexual and gender-based violence used as a weapon to silence women. While all women faced such threats, female politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, and feminist activists were particularly targeted. Unequal access to information and the Internet were major impediments to women’s empowerment. Only about half of all women worldwide had access to the Internet, and that figure fell dramatically in the poorer and more remote locations of the world. Information of particular interest to women, such as data on workplace inequalities or on sexual and reproductive health, were often unavailable, outdated, or blocked.

Ms. Khan said there was a clear link between the root causes of gender inequality, and the persistence of gendered censorship. Governments must abolish laws, policies, and practices of gendered censorship, and be more proactive in dismantling the structural and systemic roots of gender discrimination. Social media platforms played a vital role in women’s empowerment by enabling them to communicate, advocate, organise and access information. States must not use efforts to eradicate online violence, gendered hate speech and disinformation as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression. There could be no trade-off between women’s right to be free from violence and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The report recommended a threefold approach to avoid a trade-off, including a gender-sensitive interpretation of the right to freedom; an internationally accepted standard on what constituted online gender-based violence, hate speech and disinformation; and a calibrated approach to ensure that responses by States and companies were aligned with the level of harm. Ms. Khan encouraged the Office of the High Commissioner to explore these issues through multi-stakeholder consultations.

MARIANA DUARTE, Programme Officer, Gender Partnership Programme, Inter-Parliamentary Union , said that the main gender-based barrier observed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on freedom of opinion and expression for women in politics was gendered violence. This violence was directed at women as a group, and aimed to eject them from the political arena. Three studies had been conducted, which highlighted percentages of psychological violence against women parliamentarians (over 80 per cent). The most common manifestation of psychological violence was sexist attitudes and remarks aiming to ignore or degrade women in politics, or to judge their physical appearance. Other emblematic examples of psychological violence included threats of death, rape, beating or abduction. The levels of such threats ranged from 42 per cent in Africa to 47 per cent in Europe. Online sexist attacks were also highly prevalent according to the three studies, especially in Europe, where 58 per cent of respondents had experienced such attacks. The studies also brought to light how multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination – such as age, disability, minority group status, and marital status could lead to an exponential increase in gender-based violence against certain women parliamentarians.

Violence against women in politics required greater accountability and an urgent coordinated response from key actors at international and national levels.

Ms. Durante highlighted the importance of using existing international human rights mechanisms for addressing violence against women in politics. United Nations

mechanisms such as Special Procedures and treaty bodies could serve as important avenues for addressing individual cases. Women needed to be encouraged to use such mechanisms, and more must be done to open human rights mechanisms to cases of violence against women in politics. National reports under the fourth Universal Periodic Review cycle starting in November 2022 were due to focus more strongly on the role of parliaments in the promotion and protection of human rights.

This offered a unique opportunity for reporting States to provide information on the obstacles women faced to take part in politics without fear of reprisals, and what was being done, to address those challenges. Ms. Durante said that eliminating gender-based violence in politics was essential for women to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. It was also a guarantee for the effectiveness of parliament, for genuine democracy and for gender equality in society.

JULIE POSETTI, International Centre for Journalists , said gender-based online violence against journalists was one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom and the safety of women journalists internationally. It aided and abetted impunity for crimes against journalists, including physical assault and murder. It was designed to silence, humiliate, and discredit. Additionally, there was a dangerous trend that correlated online violence with offline attacks, harassment and abuse. Targeted online attacks on women journalists were also increasingly networked, sophisticated, and at times State-linked.

While States were the main duty-bearers regarding the protection of journalists, with a responsibility to legislate accordingly and ensure law enforcement agencies responded appropriately, a number of governments stood accused of not only failing to fulfil their responsibility to protect women journalists, but of being actively part of the crisis endangering them. In many countries, individual political actors and parties had been identified as perpetrators, instigators and amplifiers of online violence targeting women journalists.

The Human Rights Council and its mechanisms could contribute to raising awareness of violence against women journalists by, among other points, ensuring that mechanisms and protocols to defend the safety of journalists and end impunity explicitly addressed violence against women journalists (online and offline), including the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists currently under review. The Council and its mechanisms could also consider a United Nations-level conduit to channel complaints against State actors engaged in targeted online violence campaigns, and social media companies which facilitated attacks on women journalists with impunity.

MITZI JONELLE TAN, Convenor and International Spokesperson, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines , said across the world the dangers affecting environmental defenders and activists were rising. Existing socio-economic crises at hand led to young girls being more afraid to speak up. The lack of access to quality education added to the fear caused by societal prejudice and discrimination. Everyone should have proper access to education if there were to be solutions to the climate crisis that were led by the most marginalised and those most impacted. Young girls, especially those most economically marginalised, who were fighting for human rights and climate justice were often belittled, pushed aside, and tokenised – at best, becoming a photo opportunity for world leaders and policymakers instead of actually listening to their demands for equity, and at worst being physically harassed and silenced. Sexual violence was also used to silence women defenders, much of which was underreported.

Across the world, States and human rights councils needed to actively consult women, and not just women from a certain class – but those from the most marginalised classes. Marginalised women needed to be empowered with education and information, and given space in order to be active members of society, so girls’ education must be a priority. There should be more stringent rules on protecting human rights abuses against women, especially because in times of distress which the climate crisis would exacerbate, women and children were more prone to harassment and violence. The fight for climate justice included gender justice; it included the fight for women’s liberation.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, a number of speakers said overcoming gender-based barriers to freedom of opinion and expression could be extremely challenging, as these barriers were often rooted in social attitudes, cultural norms and patriarchal values, besides being imposed or integrated in discriminatory laws, policies and practices. Moreover, some harmful, implicit social norms often constituted root causes for gender-based discrimination and for undermining women’s and girls’ rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, both online and offline. It was therefore crucial to break the cycle of reproduction of gender stereotypes which ultimately impacted entire societies. Restrictions to freedom of opinion and expression could have wider impacts on human rights, and where women and girls were hindered in their expression, all were deprived of their valuable opinions. Sexual and gender-based violence, including abuse and harassment through digital technologies, was often used as a deliberate tactic to silence women and girls.

Despite the impressive and inspirational gains made by women and girls, as well as people with diverse gender identities, expression and opinion were still not equally free and protected for all persons. Currently many women and girls from diverse backgrounds faced endemic discrimination, and it was essential to establish good practice norms in the Council that aimed at the full eradication of gender-based discrimination. The Council had a mandate to ensure that this was a principle for all, ensuring the respect and guarantee of human rights for all. It was also vital to take an inclusive approach and engage men and boys when taking measures to address the safety of all journalists and other media workers. This was particularly important to effectively tackle gender-based violence, discrimination, abuse and harassment, including sexual harassment, threats and intimidation, as well as inequality, negative social norms and gender-stereotypes.

Cultural norms, gender stereotypes and ensuing discrimination online and offline continued to suppress, censor and mute the voices of women and girls. Unfortunately, women activists, politicians, human rights defenders, journalists and media workers were disproportionately targeted by State and non-State actors, including hate speech, bullying and acts of violence. Women’s and girls’ leadership was essential to advancing gender equality. Respect, protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression was 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. The effective exercise of the right of freedom of opinion and expression was essential for the enjoyment of other human rights and constituted a fundamental pillar for democracy. The international community needed to invest more to ensure that girls and young women could openly form their opinions in all spheres of public domain, including within this Council and other United Nations fora.

Concluding Remarks

MARIANA DUARTE, Programme Officer, Gender Partnership Programme, Inter-Parliamentary Union , said that violence against women politicians did not happen in a vacuum. By assuming a position of power, women were defying patriarchal norms and were particularly at risk. Many of the root causes were related to gender-based violence against women. A sound legal framework free from discrimination against women was required, as well as specific provisions in the law against violence against women in politics. It was important to educate men and boys from an early age. It was vital to understand and acknowledge the problem to address the issue. Perpetrators committing violence against female parliamentarians came from everywhere; their families, their party, or members of their staff. The more women there were in parliament, the more it would be accepted that they belonged where they were. If women in parliament were no longer a minority, they would be stronger. It was also important to have an institutional commitment to protect women in parliament.

JULIE POSETTI, Global Director of Research at the International Centre for Journalists , said impunity for crimes against journalists was a concerning issue; women journalists were targeted online, and were being threatened with cases of journalists who had been murdered with impunity within their own countries. Gender disinformation and gendered hate speech were key issues. These could be combatted by addressing the root causes, including structural inequality; however, these circumstances were often used to justify inaction. A book would be published in November with a 25-step plan to aid States in their responses to gender-based violence. The United Nations could not stay silent, when despots were targeting women in such ways, there needed to be a reckoning to allow women to be defended.

MITZI JONELLE TAN, Convenor and International Spokesperson, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines , said gender injustices were still rising. It was not enough to have women lead – States had to go to the most marginalised lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and women. States must play a role in the empowerment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and women. Gender injustice could not be discussed in a vacuum – it had to be looked at in the context of all those who were discriminated against. Young people needed to be educated at a young age in gender injustice. Everything heard today was appreciated, but work needed to be done.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and young women were becoming ever more vulnerable to climate injustice. In every aspect of work, gender injustice needed to be discussed – it had to penetrate every aspect. It could not be seen just as being perpetrated by outside forces. In some countries the threats to women were not just threats to expression or opinion, but also to their rights to exist. Human rights defenders were often at the forefront of this, threatened sexually, and their families being turned away from them. These panels could not be the end – the system that was being created should not just empower women, but all people across all forms of life. Women needed to not just feel protected, but actually be safe, and to do this, there had to be a holistic approach, from communities, and in all aspects of work.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2022/09/afternoon-human-rights-council-holds-annual-discussion

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