Allowing space for everyone to speak up, is critical for a free and fully functioning society, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday, warning that a safe environment online has never been more essential.
Volker Türk was issuing a clarion call to protect and expand civic space, arguing that it’s the only way to enable us all “to play a role in political, economic, and social life, at all levels, from local to global”.
He said with more and more decision-making migrating online, “with private companies playing an outsized role, having an open, safe digital public square has never been more important”.
And yet, States are struggling and “often failing” to protect online space for the common good, “swinging between a laissez-faire approach that has allowed violence and dangerous hate speech to go unchecked, and overbroad regulations used as a cudgel against those exercising their free speech rights, including journalists and human rights defenders,” he added.
He called on big businesses to step up and increase investment in preventing and responding to online harms, especially in the non-English language environment, stressing that “doing business in any location requires making sure you can do so safely, in line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
The UN human rights chief said that carving out civic space was key to human rights, to peace, development, and for “sustainable and resilient societies”, but coming under more and more pressure from undue restrictions, and laws.
This includes crackdowns on peaceful assembly, internet shutdowns, and bullying and harassment online.
“States must step up efforts to protect and expand civic space as the precondition for people to be able to sustainably enjoy all other entitlements enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from access to healthcare and clean water and quality education to social protection and labour rights,” Türk argued.
Pressure on civil space continues despite the inspiring commitment of civil society groups, he continued.
“Civil society is a key enabler of trust between governments and the populations they serve and is often the bridge between the two. For governments to reduce barriers to public participation, they must protect this space, for the benefit of all – both online and offline.”