Enhancing synergies between UNESCO and HRC: Fostering freedom of expression through UPR Process


I am pleased to open this event with the Office of the President of the Human Rights Council and UNESCO.

This event is both timely and needed.

We have the opportunity today, once again, to collectively underline that freedom of expression is essential for any society to realise its people’s fullest potential and aspirations. It is a necessary condition for the realization of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, key for the promotion and protection of human rights. Freedom of expression is also the basis for the full enjoyment of a wide range of other rights, such as the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the freedom of peaceful assembly, or the right to vote.

Yet, freedom of expression nowadays faces increasing limitations, both legal and practical, both in countries with restricted civic space as well as in those with longer histories of active public debate and exchange. Some of these limitations involve generalised assertions of what may be a legitimate objective – typically national security or public order – but without the barest demonstration of legality, necessity or proportionality, as required by international human rights standards. Other limitations, like the criminalisation of political criticism or assaults on free exercise of reporting and other media activities, pursue objectives that are plainly not legitimate under international human rights law.

In many parts of the world, old types of censorship remain in familiar use, while new forms are expanding along with the growing use of digital technologies. The targets of restrictions include critics of government, dissenters from conventional life, provocateurs, minorities, and journalists and media workers, among others.


Dear friends and colleagues,

This year we mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Plan of Action on safety of journalists and the issue of impunity and today’s event is also an occasion to highlight worrying trends that tragically affect the work of journalists and media workers around the world. These include the prevalent impunity for the killings of journalists; the increasing numbers of journalists detained for their legitimate work; the growing use of restrictive legislation and legal proceedings against journalists; the widespread online violence with repercussions off-line especially the harassment of women journalists; or the new threats posed by broad digital surveillance.

In response to these challenges, the Plan of Action calls on UN entities to “foster synergies”. In this spirit, after issuing a common statement during the last World Press Freedom Day Conference, the Presidents of the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly and the UNESCO General Conference together signed the foreword of a key Guidance Note for Member States on how to word recommendations in the fields of freedom of expression, safety of journalists and access to information, which will be presented by our colleagues of UNESCO.

This practical guidance note is not the first tool developed by UNESCO, a great tribute of the work done together, to push for the integration of freedom of expression and safety of journalists in Universal Periodic Review (UPR) processes. UNESCO published similar guidelines for civil society organizations, National Human Rights Institutions, UN Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams, as well as Information Commissioners, and other stakeholders. These tools add significantly to our collaborative efforts.

All these initiatives are important to build on the leverage that the UPR mechanism offers to raise human rights issues at country level, including of course those related to freedom of expression. The Secretary-General has himself encouraged, in his milestone Call to Action for Human Rights and Our Common Agenda, greater use of the UPR and other human rights mechanisms to advance solutions to pressing contemporary social, economic and political challenges.

As we all know, the UPR offers a unique platform to reiterate and follow up on recommendations by other mechanisms. In that, country reviews are valuably informed by contributions of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures Mandate Holders, Commissions of Inquiry and other investigative mandates. We have come a long way indeed. We are particularly gratified at OHCHR by the UN Country Teams’ increasing uptake of the outcome of the human rights mechanisms in the UNDSCFs and CCAs.


Dear friends and colleagues,

The 3rd cycle of the UPR, which just concluded, has seen a continued 100% participation of States in this process as well as increased engagement of States at the highest levels of Government, and of a variety of stakeholders – even during the worst periods of the Covid-19 pandemic, adapting flexibly with hybrid modalities that allowed more high-level participation (including Prime Ministers and Ministers) and diverse participation of civil society – whose voices would have otherwise not been heard.

The number of recommendations received and those accepted by States grew further during the 3rd cycle, with States taking concrete steps to implement them at national level. Such steps have included laws protecting journalists and human rights defenders, and promoting the right to freedom of expression, including through the increased ratification of relevant international instruments.

Recommendations have increasingly been refined to reflect the changing nature of restrictions to freedom of expression, especially in the wake of the emergence of social media in the digital sphere.

Looking forward, the 4th cycle of the UPR will be an opportunity to take stock of the implementation of recommendations received during the previous reviews and to renew efforts towards enhanced implementation of recommendations in nationally owned processes, in complementarity with other human rights mechanisms. The 4th cycle, gearing towards a greater impact on the ground, will also draw on the increasing mobilization of the UN system as a whole – in line with the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights – to better protect specific rights and vulnerable groups in national contexts. One of the most important consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it help us shed light on existing and growing on inequalities.

The guidance developed by UNESCO, including model recommendations and concrete examples of engagement in all phases of the UPR, will help pave the way for other UN entities to guide their constituencies, in complementarity with ours, on most effective use of the UPR, in line with their specific mandates.

The UPR and other human rights mechanisms are drivers to build and strengthen synergies, partnerships and dialogue, with the common objective to protect human rights for all.

The voices of journalists, media workers, human rights defenders and other human rights holders are more vital than ever in today’s world. By formulating targeted recommendations through the UPR, by overseeing their implementation and by assisting the building of the necessary capacity, States can help ensure that freedom of expression is upheld everywhere, that media professionals can exercise their professional activities freely and that journalists can operate in safe environments. It’s a real privilege to work wit UNESCO and we cherish this partnership tremendously to advance the protection of rights of people that we serve.

It is a real pleasure to work on these critical challenges with UNESCO- we appreciate this partnership and look forward to more engagement, strengthening our collective impact on the ground.

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