Statement on Protecting Human Rights Defenders Online

Department of State

The text of the following statement is released by the Governments of the United States of America and the European Union in advance of the third U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council Ministerial in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2022.

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The U.S.-EU partnership is a cornerstone of our shared strength, prosperity, and commitment to advancing freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights around the world. In the framework of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, we address the misuse of technology threatening security and human rights and have committed to strengthen our cooperation on protecting human rights defenders online; promoting the open, free, global, interoperable, secure, and reliable Internet as stated in the Declaration for the Future of the Internet; combatting online harassment and abuse; eliminating arbitrary and unlawful surveillance; combatting government-imposed Internet shutdowns; and countering disinformation and foreign information manipulation and interference.

Digital technologies are a vital resource for human rights defenders and civic actors around the world, including in the context of documenting human rights violations and abuses, and international humanitarian law violations. However, these technologies can also be misused to target human rights defenders and undermine civic space. The United States and the European Union (EU) are deeply concerned by the rapid growth of online threats against human rights defenders and the ongoing contraction of civic space around the world. Human rights defenders continue to face threats and attacks, including arbitrary or unlawful online surveillance, censorship, harassment, smear campaigns, disinformation to include gendered disinformation, targeted Internet shutdowns, and doxing. Online attacks often pave the way for physical human rights violations and abuses, including beatings, killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention.

Women human rights defenders are disproportionately impacted by threats and attacks, which are more often gendered and sexualized than threats against their male counterparts and increasingly take place online. Many women human rights defenders face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence, including on the basis of other characteristics, including race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or gender identity. Acts of gender-based online harassment and abuse have a chilling effect, leading to self-censorship and disengagement of women from public life and discouraging the political and civic ambitions of adolescent girls.

Given these trends, and in line with our respective policies, the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 and the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and the Guidelines for U.S. Diplomatic Mission Support to Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders, we reaffirm our joint commitment to protecting human rights defenders from threats and attacks and promoting freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, both online and offline.

The United States and EU firmly condemn the misuse of technology by both state and non-state actors to target human rights defenders. We reaffirm that all human rights and fundamental freedoms apply both online and offline. We recall, that according to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus by UN member States, States “shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration”. States should work to prevent attacks against human rights defenders and bring perpetrators of attacks to justice.

We also emphasize the responsibility of the private sector, in particular technology companies and digital platforms across the digital ecosystem, to respect human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We urge companies to prevent the misuse of their products and platforms, conduct due diligence, take effective action to address all forms of online violence and unlawful or arbitrary surveillance against human rights defenders, support victims and survivors in their search for remedy and accountability for violations and abuses, and provide a safe space for human rights defenders to carry out their work. We encourage companies to establish a grievance mechanism for internal and external reporting of misuse. We also support stronger accountability for technology platforms and recognize the role of government to enhance online safety, security and privacy.

We will continue leveraging our joint expertise to identify and mitigate threats faced by human rights defenders online. The United States and EU will work to develop effective policies to mitigate threats to democracy and human rights online, and to promote appropriate oversight and safeguards for the use of surveillance technologies. We will take a multistakeholder approach, including through working with partner governments, private sector, academia, civil society including human rights NGOs and human rights defenders, survivors of online harassment and abuse, multi-stakeholder organisations, and international organisations. We commit to counter the proliferation of foreign commercial spyware and hacking tools by actors that misuse them to target human rights defenders and others, and to promote accountability for companies that are complicit in enabling human rights abuses.

We will continue to give human rights defenders a platform to highlight the online threats they face, including through public events, as we did in the framework of the 49th Session of the Human Rights Council. We recognise the important role that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Special Procedures have in identifying innovative solutions for the online protection of human rights defenders. We are committed to working closely to elevate these issues within the UN system, including with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders and the UN Tech Envoy. We call on likeminded countries to join in the effort and to publicly amplify their support for human rights defenders. The EU and the United States are committed to ensure access and meaningful participation of civil society in conversations around human rights in the multilateral fora.

The United States and EU will continue to support mechanisms, including the Digital Defenders Partnership, the Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, and ProtectDefenders.EU that provide resources for at-risk HRDs and civil society organizations, including for preventing digital attacks and for supporting digital security needs. In the framework of the Trade and Technology Council, we commit to expanding cooperation and mutual learning between U.S.- and EU-funded emergency mechanisms and the broader community of practice, with the goal of expanding the beneficial impact of these resources for human rights defenders worldwide.

The United States and EU are also committed to fostering cooperation through our missions around the globe. U.S. Embassies and EU Delegations play an instrumental role in monitoring developments and conducting joint outreach on issues surrounding human rights defenders’ protection. The United States and the EU stand ready to engage with government partners to strengthen and support their national efforts, including capacities and institutions, to prevent and address threats against human rights defenders.

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