Publish date21 Jan 2022 - 17:25
Story Code : 535323

When did it become illegal to defend human rights?

Governments in every region of the world are criminalizing human rights activism. They do it by prosecuting protest organizers, journalists, internet activists, and leaders of civil society organizations under laws that make it a crime to insult public figures, disseminate information that damages “public order,” “national security,” and “fake news.”
When did it become illegal to defend human rights?
In the Persian Gulf region and neighbouring countries, oppressive governments have further weaponized their legal arsenal by adopting anti-cybercrime laws that apply these overly broad and ill-defined offline restrictions to online communications. 
In an age when online communications are ubiquitous, and in societies where free press is crippled, laws that criminalize the promotion of human rights on social media networks and other online platforms undermine the ability to publicize and discuss human rights violations and threaten the foundation of any human rights movement.
In May of 2018, for example, the Saudi government carried out mass arrests of women advocating online for women’s right to drive. Charged under the country’s cybercrime law including article six which prohibits online communication “impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy,” these human rights activists were detained, tortured, and received multi-year sentences for the “crime” of promoting women’s rights. 
There is certainly a necessity to address the prevalence and impact of cybercrimes but without criminalizing people who speak out for human rights.
European countries and the United Nations (UN) have encouraged states to adopt a standard approach to addressing crimes committed with online technologies ranging from wire fraud to financing terrorist groups. The Council of Europe issued a 2001 regional convention on cybercrime, to which any state may accede, and the UN is promoting a cybercrime treaty
Common standards can prevent the abuse of online technologies by enabling  the sharing of online evidence and promoting accountability since the evidence of online crimes often resides on servers outside the country where the harm occurred or where the wrongdoers reside. 
The problem for human rights defenders in the Persian Gulf region and neighbouring countries is that states have exploited the opportunity to align their cybercrime laws with European standards to double-down on laws restricting legitimate online expression. 
European countries have robust human rights oversight from the European Court of Human Rights, which ensures that limitations on freedom of expression online meet stringent international standards. There is no comparable human rights oversight for the Persian Gulf region. Without adequate international judicial review, governments can successfully exploit international processes to strengthen their ability to stifle online expression.
The regional model cybercrime law drafted by the United Arab Emirates and adopted by the Arab League in 2004, follows international guidance. However, it incorporates a regional twist and includes provisions that criminalize online dissemination of content that is “contrary to the public order and morals,” facilitates assistance to terrorist groups, along with disclosure of confidential government information related to national security or the economy. 
UN experts reviewed the UAE law and gave it a seal of approval, noting it complied with the European convention, ignoring the fact that  UN human rights experts have documented repeatedly that governments use such restrictions to crack down on dissent. A UN-sponsored global cybercrime study, published in 2013, similarly soft-pedaled the threat of criminalizing online dissent by noting that governments had leeway to protect local values. Such protection does not extend to speaking up for universal rights like equality and democracy.

The international community needs to increase pressure on the Persian Gulf region and neighboring countries to comply with their international obligations to protect freedom of expression off and online. Turning away from the clear evidence that oppressive governments are expanding the reach of criminal law to stifle online human rights activism undermines legitimate international efforts to address cybercrime. 

In the age of the internet, online human rights activism needs to be supported—and protected—as a vital part of the cybercommunications ecosystem. In the Gulf region, defenders of human rights pay an untenable price for their work, risking arrest, torture, and even death. It is time to reverse the trend while there are still defenders left. 
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