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Cybersecurity & Standards, European Policy, Free Expression

CDTEU Celebrates Human Rights Day Reflecting on Ambitious EU Policy in the Digital Age

The Director for the Centre for Democracy & Technology’s European Office shares some reflections on international Human Rights Day and in advance of her intervention at the 2020 EU-NGO Forum.

What Could a More Ambitious EU Human Rights Foreign Policy Look Like in the Digital Age?

December 10th marks the international Human Rights Day. The European Union, working with civil society, has organised its 2020 Forum which will bring human rights defenders from across the globe to join a virtual conference on ‘The Impact of Technologies on Human Rights’. The EU has also recently adopted its new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, which lays out its strategy on democracy and human rights for the next four years. The focus on technology and human rights is welcome, and offers us an opportunity to imagine what an ambitious EU human rights foreign policy in the digital age might look like.

Defending the Defenders Online

The EU’s Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan puts a welcome emphasis on the need to increase support for human rights defenders internationally, and recognises those defenders as essential to vibrant and free democracies. This focus is particularly welcome given the  unfortunate crackdown we are witnessing globally against rights advocates, which the EU itself refers to as the “shrinking civic space”. This crackdown manifests in different ways: the common theme is the abuse of criminal and administrative laws to clamp down on legitimate human rights work. In a number of countries this is done through counter-terrorist legislation, with broad definitions which leave laws open to abuse by governments that wish to silence all dissent. Human rights defenders often work in highly dangerous circumstances and are frequently surveilled, working at their own peril to fight for democractic freedoms and human rights. The EU has clear guidelines on how its diplomats globally should work to protect human rights defenders. In this digital age – and especially as the Covid-19 pandemic moves more organising and advocacy work online – the digital element of that protection is essential.

Encryption as a Vital Tool

Given the context in which human rights defenders work, encryption is an essential tool to  protect their work and safety. The EU should lead by example and insist on full protection of encryption at home, while strongly supporting the rights-protecting benefits of encryption in international fora and through diplomatic efforts abroad. The safety of so many rights defenders and investigative journalists is contingent upon the ability to communicate securely and safely. The EU could send a powerful message about the priority it gives to its human rights defender policy by adopting a proactive advocacy approach about the values of encryption.

Rule of Law and Counterterrorism Laws

All too often, prominent democracy and human rights defenders are wrongfully imprisoned under over-broadly drafted counter-terrorism laws. In a chilling example just last month, three staff members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) — one of the few remaining human rights organisations in Egypt — were arrested. The advocates were charged with joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media, and were jailed for 15 days of pre-trial detention. CDT joined a letter with other human rights organizations demanding their release, and the EU also issued a statement in support. Thankfully all three have since been released, it appears in response to the international pressure.

While the EU was a leader in that instance, the EU has itself a draft law which could be adopted as early as this week on “preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online”.  In the most recently shared draft, the definition of “terrorist” is overly broad, which could result in restricting legitimate expression online. The draft also proposes EU-wide removal orders, so that one EU member state would be able to restrict content throughout the EU, based on its own interpretation of “terrorist content.” The draft has come under fire from a group of UN Special Rapporteurs on account of its non-compliance with international human rights law. If adopted as proposed, the law would strike a serious blow to the credibility of the EU’s foreign policy efforts on the rule of law and in support of human rights defenders. CDT had urged the trilogues to maintain the amendments to the regulation adopted by Parliament, but it appears that most of these amendments have been lost during negotiation.

As is so often the case, a strong EU foreign policy for human rights in the digital age must start with one at home. On this international Human Rights Day, the EU can recommit itself as a global leader that protects human rights defenders, and the legal protections and technological tools on which their essential work depends.