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U.N. Special Rapporteurs warn of closing digital space amid COVID-19 at RightsCon Online

Access Now welcomes a new statement from U.N. Special Rapporteurs warning of increased closing of digital spaces amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and embraces their commitment to continue to document the intersection of technology within their mandates. The six experts, Clément Voule, E. Tendayi Achiume, Agnes Callamard, David Kaye, Mary Lawlor, and Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin are all actively involved in this year’s RightsCon Online, and issued the joint statement in light of thematic discussions taking center stage  at the summit. Highlighting that state actors are continuing to leverage the internet and digital technologies to muzzle dissent and quash online and offline collective action, the independent U.N. experts emphasized that they are “deeply concerned that such patterns of abuse have accelerated under the exigencies of the global pandemic.”

“We are thrilled to have these independent U.N. experts join us for RightsCon Online and use this platform to defend digital civic space. They continue to offer a rich perspective on a variety of issues from racial discrimination, to online attacks against human rights defenders, quelling protest movements through internet shutdowns, and unlawful surveillance,” said Brett Solomon, Executive Director at Access Now. “This timely joint statement truly speaks to the increasing threats posed with the closing of civic space, which have become compounded amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.N. experts rightfully stress the urgency for governments and the tech sector to systematically address this, and other intersecting issues such as systemic violence and institutional racism, worldwide.”

“We will continue to engage with the mandates of the U.N. Special Rapporteurs beyond RightsCon Online,” said Melody Patry, Advocacy Director at Access Now, “and look forward to addressing the serious issues contributing to the shrinking of digital space — from internet shutdowns, to invasive government surveillance —  with a collaborative and human rights-centric approach.”

The mandates of the six experts cover the right to peaceful assembly and association (Voule); contemporary forms of racism (Achiume); extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (Callamard); freedom of expression (Kaye); the situation of human rights defenders (Lawlor); and human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (Ní Aoláin).

The experts note, “As the UN nears its 75th General Assembly, the gap between the commitments and actual practices of States needs greater scrutiny,” a call that Access Now emphasizes.

This marks the second consecutive year that Special Rapporteurs have issued a statement on the occasion of RightsCon. Find the 2019 statement, issued at RightsCon Tunis and signed by three experts, here.