Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Acronym: UN OHCHR
Address: Palais Wilson 52, rue des Pâquis, CH-1201 Geneva, Switzerland
The UN Human Rights Office is headed by the OHCHR and is the principal UN entity on human rights. Also known as UN Human Rights, it is part of the UN Secretariat. UN Human Rights has been mandated by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to promote and protect all human rights. As such, it plays a crucial role in supporting the three fundamental pillars of the UN: peace and security, human rights, and development. UN Human Rights provides technical expertise and capacity development in regard to the implementation of human rights, and in this capacity assists governments in fulfilling their obligations.
UN Human Rights is associated with a number of other UN human rights entities. To illustrate, it serves as the secretariat for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Treaty Bodies. The UNHRC is a body of the UN that aims to promote respect of human rights worldwide. It discusses thematic issues and in addition to its ordinary session, it has the ability to hold special sessions on serious human rights violations and emergencies. The ten Treaty Bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor the implementation of the core international human rights treaties.
The UNHRC established the Special Procedures, which are made up of UN Special Rapporteurs (i.e. independent experts or working groups) working on a variety of human rights thematic issues and country situations to assist the efforts of the UNHRC through regular reporting and advice. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), under the auspices of the UNHRC, is a unique process that involves a review of the human rights records of all UN member states, providing the opportunity for each state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries. UN Human Rights also serves as the secretariat to the UPR process.
Certain non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and national human rights institutions participate as observers in UNHRC sessions after receiving the necessary accreditation.
Digital issues are increasingly gaining in prominence in the work of UN Human Rights, the UNHRC, the Special Procedures, the UPR, and the Treaty Bodies.
A landmark document that provides a blueprint for digital human rights is the UNHRC resolution (A/HRC/20/8) on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, which was first adopted in 2012, starting a string of regular resolutions with the same name addressing a growing number of issues. All resolutions affirm that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. Numerous other resolutions and reports from UN human rights entities and experts considered in this overview tackle an ever-growing range of other digital issues including the right to privacy in the digital age; freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of association and peaceful assembly; the rights of older persons; racial discrimination; the rights of women and girls; human rights in the context of violent extremism online; economic, social, and cultural rights; human rights and technical standard-setting; business and human rights; and the safety of journalists.
Digital policy issues
In 2018, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression presented a report to the UNGA on Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technologies and Implications for the Information Environment. Among other things, the document addresses the role of AI in the enjoyment of freedom of opinion and expression including ‘access to the rules of the game when it comes to AI-driven platforms and websites’ and therefore urges for a human rights-based approach to AI.
For her 2020 thematic report to the Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance analysed different forms of racial discrimination in the design and use of emerging technologies, including the structural and institutional dimensions of this discrimination. She followed up with reports examining how digital technologies, including AI-driven predictive models, deployed in the context of border enforcement and administration reproduce, reinforce, and compound racial discrimination.
In 2020, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination published its General Recommendation No. 36 on preventing and combating racial profiling by law enforcement officials (CERD/C/GC/36), which focuses on algorithmic decision-making and AI in relation to racial profiling by law enforcement officials.
Child safety online
The issue of child safety online has garnered the attention of UN human rights entities for some time. A 2016 resolution on Rights of the Child: Information and Communications Technologies and Child Sexual Exploitation adopted by the UNHRC calls on states to ensure ‘full, equal, inclusive, and safe access [...] to information and communications technologies by all children and safeguard the protection of children online and offline’, as well as the legal protection of children from sexual abuse and exploitation online. The Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography, and other child sexual abuse material, mandated by the UNHRC to analyse the root causes of sale and sexual exploitation and pro- mote measures to prevent it, also looks at issues related to child abuse, such as the sexual exploitation of children online, which has been addressed in a report (A/ HRC/43/40) published in 2020, but also in earlier reports.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its General Comment No. 25 on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment (CRC/C/GC/25), which lays out how states parties should implement the convention in relation to the digital environment and provides guidance on relevant legislative, policy, and other measures to ensure full compliance with their obligations under the convention and optional protocols in the light of opportunities, risks, and challenges in promoting, respecting, protecting, and fulfilling all children’s rights in the digital environment.
UN Human Rights maintains an online platform consisting of a number of databases on anti-discrimination and jurisprudence, as well as the Universal Human Rights Index (UHRI), which provides access to recommendations issued to countries by Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, and the UPR of the UNHCR.
UN Human Rights also published a report titled A Human Rights-Based Approach to Data – Leaving no one Behind in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that specifically focuses on issues of data collection and disaggregation in the context of sustainable development.
UN Human Rights has worked closely with partners across the UN system in contributing to the Secretary-General’s 2020 Data Strategy, and co-leads, with the Office of Legal Affairs and UN Global Pulse, work on the subsequent Data Protection and Privacy Program.
UN Human Rights launched the Guiding Principles in Technology Project (B-Tech Project) to provide guidance and resources to companies operating in the technology space with regard to the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs on BHR). Following the publication of a B-Tech scoping paper in 2019, several foundational papers have delved into a broad range of business-related issues, from business-model-related human rights risks to access to remedies. At the heart of the B-Tech project lies multistakeholder engagement, informing all of its outputs. The B-Tech Project is enhancing its engagement in Africa, working with technology company operators, investors, and other key digital economy stakeholders, including civil society, across Africa in a set of African economies and their tech hubs to create awareness of implementing the UNGPs on BHR.
Following a multistakeholder consultation held on 7–8 March 2022, the High Commissioner presented her report on UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and Technology Companies (A/HRC/50/56), which demonstrated the value and practical application of the UNGPs in preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts by technology companies.
The Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has in recent years increased his analysis of human rights issues arising in the context of increased digitisation and automation. His 2017 report to the General Assembly tackled the socio-economic challenges in an emerging world where automation and AI threaten traditional sources of income and analysed the promises and possible pitfalls of introducing a universal basic income. His General Assembly report in 2019 addressed worrying trends in connection with the digitisation of the welfare state. Moreover, in his 2022 report to the UNHRC on non-take-up of rights in the context of social protection, the Special Rapporteur highlighted, among other things, the benefits and considerable risks associated with automation of social protection processes.
Geneva-based human rights organisations and mechanisms have consistently addressed content policy questions, in particular in the documents referred under Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. Other contexts where content policy plays an important role include Rights of the Child, Gender Rights Online, and Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Moreover, the use of digital technologies in the context of terrorism and violent extremism is closely associated with content policy considerations.
UN Human Rights, at the request of the UNHRC, prepared a compilation report in 2016, which explores, among other issues, aspects related to the prevention and countering of violent extremism online, and underscores that responses to violent extremism that are robustly built on human rights are more effective and sustainable.
Additional efforts were made in 2019 when the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism published a report where she examined the multifaceted impacts of counter-terrorism measures on civic space and the rights of civil society actors and human rights defenders, including measures taken to address vaguely defined terrorist and violent extremist content. In July 2020, she published a report discussing the human rights implications of the use of biometric data to identify terrorists and recommended safeguards that should be taken.
Collaboration within the UN system
UN Human Rights is a member of the Secretary-General’s Reference Group and contributed to the development of his Strategy on New Technologies in 2018. The OHCHR was co-champion of the follow-up on two human-rights-related recommendations of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. The outcomes of this process were the basis of the Secretary-General's Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, presented in June 2020.
As part of the implementation of the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, UN Human Rights launched the UN Hub for Human rights and Digital Technology, which provides a central repository of authoritative guidance from various UN human rights mechanisms on the application of human rights norms to the use and governance of digital technologies.
Moreover, as requested by the Secretary-General’s Roadmap to Digital Cooperation and the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, UN Human Rights is leading a UN system-wide process to develop a human rights due diligence guidance (HRDD) for digital technology. The HRDD guidance in development pertains to the application of human rights due diligence and human rights impact assessment related to the UN’s design, development, procurement, and use of digital technologies, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2022.
UN Human Rights participated in the UNESCO-led process to develop ethical standards for AI. With its aim to protect human rights and serve as an ethical guidance compass in the use of AI, UNESCO recommendation on the Ethics of AI was adopted by UNESCO member states at UNESCO’s General Conference in November 2021. As a strong contributor to the Inter-Agency Working Group on AI, UN Human Rights also provided feedback on the ethical principles of AI for the UN system.
In addition, UN Human Rights is a member of the Legal Identity Agenda Task Force, which promotes solutions for the implementation of SDG target 16.9 (i.e. by 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration). It leads its work on exclusion and discrimination in the context of digitized identity systems.
Rapid advancements in neurotechnology and neuroscience, while holding promises of medical benefits and scientific breakthroughs, present a number of human rights and ethical challenges. Against this backdrop, UN Human Rights has been contributing significantly to an inter-agency process led by the Executive Office of the Secretary-General to develop a global roadmap for effective and inclusive governance of neurotechnology.
Secretary-General’s Report on “Our Common Agenda”
Since the adoption of A/RES/76/6 on Our Common Agenda in November 2021, the follow-up by the UN system has been underway. UN Human Rights is co-leading several proposals in collaboration with other entities, notably on the application of the human rights framework in the digital sphere, mitigation and prevention of internet shutdowns, and disinformation.
Privacy and data protection
Challenges to the right to privacy in the digital age, such as surveillance, communications interception, and the increased use of data-intensive technologies, are among some of the issues covered by the activities of UN Human Rights. At the request of the UN General Assembly and the UNHRC, the High Commissioner prepared four reports on the right to privacy in the digital age. The first report, presented in 2014, addressed the threat to human rights caused by surveillance by governments, in particular mass surveillance. The ensuing report, published in September 2018, identified key principles, standards, and best practices regarding the promotion and protection of the right to privacy. It outlined minimum standards for data privacy legal frameworks. In September 2021, the High Commissioner presented a ground-breaking report on AI and the right to privacy (A/HRC/48/31), in which she called for a ban on AI applications that are incompatible with international human rights law, and stressed the urgent need for a moratorium on the sale and use of AI systems that pose serious human rights risks until adequate safeguards are put in place. In September 2022, the High Commissioner presented a report focusing on the abuse of spyware by public authorities, the key role of encryption in ensuring the enjoyment of human rights in the digital age, and the widespread monitoring of public spaces.
The UNHRC also tackles online privacy and data protection. Resolutions on the promotion and protection of human rights on the internet have underlined the need to address security concerns on the internet in accordance with international human rights obligations to ensure the protection of all human rights online, including the right to privacy. The UNHRC has also adopted specific resolutions on the right to privacy in the digital age, addressing issues such as mass surveillance, AI, the responsibility of business enterprises, and the key role of the right to privacy as an enabler of other human rights. Resolutions on the safety of journalists have emphasised the importance of encryption and anonymity tools for journalists to freely exercise their work. Two resolutions on new and emerging technologies (2019 and 2021) have further broadened the lens, for example by asking for a report on the human rights implications of technical standard-setting processes.
The UNHRC has also mandated the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy to address the issue of online privacy in its Resolution on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age from 2015 (A/HRC/RES/28/16). To illustrate, the Special Rapporteur has addressed the question of privacy from the stance of surveillance in the digital age (A/HRC/34/60), which becomes particularly challenging in the context of cross-border data flows. More recently, specific attention has been given to the privacy of health data that is being produced more and more in the day and age of digitalisation and that requires the highest legal and ethical standards (A/HRC/40/63). In this vein, in 2020, the Special Rapporteur examined data protection and surveillance in relation to COVID-19 and contact tracing in his preliminary report (A/75/147), in which he provided a more definitive analysis of how pandemics can be managed with respect to the right to privacy (A/76/220) in 2021. In another 2020 report (A/HRC/43/52), the Special Rapporteur provides a set of recommendations on privacy in the online space calling for, among other things, ‘comprehensive protection for secure digital communications, including by promoting strong encryption and anonymity- enhancing tools, products, and services, and resisting requests for “backdoors” to digital communications’ and recommending that ‘government digital identity programs are not used to monitor and enforce societal gender norms, or for purposes that are not lawful, necessary, and proportionate in a democratic society.’
The Special Rapporteur also addressed the challenges of AI and privacy, as well as children’s privacy, particularly the role of privacy in supporting autonomy and positive participation of children in society, in his report in 2021 (A/HRC/46/37).
Lastly, in 2022, the Special Rapporteur examined developments in privacy and data protection in Ibero- America in her report titled Privacy and Personal Data Protection in Ibero-America: A Step Towards Globalization? (A/HRC/49/55).
Freedom of expression
The High Commissioner and her office advocate for the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, including in the online space. Key topics in this advocacy are the protection of the civic space and the safety of journalists online; various forms of information control, including internet shutdowns and censorship; addressing incitement to violence, discrimination, or hostility; disinformation; and the role of social media platforms in the space of online expression.
Freedom of expression in the digital space also features highly on the agenda of the UNHRC. It has often been underlined that states have a responsibility to ensure adequate protection of freedom of expression online, including when they adopt and implement measures aimed at dealing with issues such as cybersecurity, incitement to violence, and the promotion and distribution of extremist content online. The UNHRC has also been firm in condemning measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or the dissemination of information online, and has called on states to refrain from and cease such measures.
In 2021, at the request of the UNHRC A/HRC/47/22, the High Commissioner prepared a report on internet shutdowns (A/HRC/50/55), which looks at trends in internet shutdowns, analysing their causes, their legal implications, and their impact on a range of human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights. She called on states to refrain from the full range of internet shutdowns and for companies to uphold their responsibilities to respect human rights. She stressed the need for development agencies, and regional and international organisations to bridge their digital connectivity efforts with efforts related to internet shutdowns.
UN Human Rights also weighs in on a range of law-making processes that are relevant to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. For example, it has engaged with the development of the EU Digital Services Act, commented extensively on global trends in regulating social media, and participated in the process of elaborating a Comprehensive International Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communications Technologies for Criminal Purposes.
Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression have been analysing issues relating to free expression in the digital space for more than a decade. Reports in the first half of the 2010s already addressed the importance of universal access to the internet for the enjoyment of human rights, free expression in the context of elections, and the adverse impacts of government surveillance on free expression. In 2018, the Special Rapporteur published a report on online content regulation. It tackles governments’ regulation of user-generated online content, analyses the role of companies, and recommends that states should ensure an enabling environment for online freedom of expression and businesses should rely on human rights law when designing their products and services. The same year, he also presented to the UNGA a report addressing freedom of expression issues linked to the use of AI by companies and states. A year later, the Special Rapporteur presented a report to the UNGA on online hate speech that discusses the regulation of hate speech in international human rights law and how it provides a basis for governmental actors considering regulatory options and for companies determining how to respect human rights online.
In 2020, the Special Rapporteur issued Disease Pandemics and the Freedom of Opinion and Expression, a report that specifically tackles issues such as access to the internet, which is highlighted to be ‘a critical element of healthcare policy and practice, public information, and even the right to life’. The report calls for greater international coordination on digital connectivity given the importance of digital access to healthcare information. Other reports addressed the vital importance of encryption and anonymity for the exercise of freedom of opinion and the threats to freedom of expression emanating from widespread digital surveillance.
The Special Rapporteur, while acknowledging the complexities and challenges posed by disinformation in the digital age, noted that responses by states and companies to counter disinformation have been inadequate and detrimental to human rights. In her 2021 report Disinformation and Freedom of Opinion and Expression (A/HRC/47/25), she examined the threats posed by disinformation to human rights, democratic institutions, and development processes, and called for multidimensional and multistakeholder responses to disinformation that are well grounded in the international human rights framework and urged companies to review their business models and states to recalibrate their responses to disinformation.
More recently, in 2022, the Special Rapporteur issued Reinforcing media freedom and the safety of journalists in the digital age (A/HRC/50/29), a report in which she calls on states and the international community to strengthen multi stakeholder cooperation to protect and promote media freedom and the safety and journalism in the digital age; ensure independence, pluralism, and viability of the media; and calls on digital services companies and social media platforms to respect the UNGPs on BHR.
Online hate speech and discrimination have also been addressed by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. For instance, in a report published in 2019, the online manifestation of antisemitism (including antisemitic hate speech) was underscored and best practices from the Netherlands and Poland were shared. The report highlights that governments ‘have an affirmative responsibility to address online antisemitism, as the digital sphere is now the primary public forum and marketplace for ideas’. In another document published that same year, the Special Rapporteur assesses the impact of online platforms on discrimination and on the perpetuation of hostile and violent acts in the name of religion, as well as how restrictive measures such as blocking and filtering of websites negatively impact the freedom of expression.
The issue of online blasphemy and undue limitations on expressing critical views of religions and beliefs imposed by governments has also been addressed on a number of occasions, including in a report from 2018.
Gender rights online
UN Human Rights and the UNHRC have reiterated on several occasions the need for countries to bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of ICTs, including the internet, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls. It has also condemned gender-based violence committed on the internet. Implementing a 2016 UNHRC resolution on the Promotion, Protection, and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet, the High Commissioner on Human Rights in 2017 prepared a report on Ways to Bridge the Gender Digital Divide from a Human Rights Perspective.
Rights of persons with disabilities
The promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the online space has been addressed on several occasions by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. A report from 2016 underscored that ICTs including the internet can increase the participation of persons with disabilities in public decision-making processes and that states should work towards reducing the access gap between those who can use ICTs and those who cannot.
Nevertheless, a report from 2019 stressed that the shift to e-governance and service delivery in a digital manner can hamper access for older persons with disabilities who may lack the necessary skills or equipment.
The Special Rapporteur also examined the opportunities and risks posed by AI, including discriminatory impacts in relation to AI in decision-making systems. In his 2021 report (A/HRC/49/52), the Special Rapporteur emphasises the importance of disability-inclusive AI and the inclusion of persons with disabilities in conversations about AI.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
The exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital environment in recent years have attracted increased attention. For example, the High Commissioner presented to the 44th session of the UNHRC a report on new technologies such as ICTs and their impact on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of assemblies, including peaceful protests. The report highlighted many of the great opportunities for the exercise of human rights that digital technologies offer and analysed key issues linked to online content takedowns and called on states to stop the practice of network disruptions in the context of protests. It also developed guidance concerning the use of surveillance tools, in particular facial recognition technology.
The Human Rights Committee published in July 2020 its General Comment No. 37 on Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (right of peaceful assembly), which addresses manifold aspects arising in the digital context.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in 2019 published a report for the UNHRC focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the digital age. In following reports, he condemned the widespread practice of internet shutdowns and raised concerns about technologically mediated restrictions on free association and assembly in the context of crises.
Technical standard-settings and human rights
The UNHRC adopted resolution A/HRC/RES/47/23 on new and emerging digital technologies and human rights, which requested UN Human Rights to convene an expert consultation and write a report discussing the relationship between human rights and technical standard-setting processes for new and emerging digital technologies. The expert consultation and the report will be presented in 2023 at the UNHRC.
As requested by the UNHRC, in its resolution A/HRC/ RES/47/23, the High Commissioner presented her report on UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and Technology Companies (A/HRC/50/56), following the multistakeholder consultation held on 7–8 March 2022. The High Commissioner’s report demonstrated the value and practical application of the UNGPs in preventing and addressing adverse human rights impacts by technology companies
The UNHRC has developed an e-learning tool to assist government officials from least developed countries and small island developing states (SIDS) as per the mandate of the Trust Fund to develop competencies on the UNHRC and its mechanisms.