Rebuilding the master’s house instead of repairing the cracks: why “diversity and inclusion” in the digital rights field is not enough

Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0

Silicon Valley is not the only sector with a “white guy” problem: civil society struggles with this as well. Oddly, it wasn’t until I looked at the group photo taken at the Digital Freedom Fund’s first strategy meeting that I noticed it: everyone in the photo except for me was white. I had just founded a new organisation supporting strategic litigation on digital rights in Europe and this had been our first field-wide strategic meeting, bringing together 32 key organisations working on this issue in the region. This was in 2018. In 2019, the number of participants had increased to 48, but the picture in the group photo still was pretty pale, with the team of my organisation accounting for 50% of the 4 exceptions to that colour palet. And while gender representation overall seemed fairly balanced, and there was a diverse range of nationalities present, some voices were noticeably absent from the room. For example, the overall impression of participants was that there was no one with a physical disability attending.* It was clear: something needed to change.

In all fairness, the participants themselves had clocked this as well –– the issue of decolonising the digital rights field had significant traction in the conversations taking place in the course of those two days in February. I have been trying to find good statistics on what is popularly referred to as “diversity and inclusion” (and sometimes as “diversity, equity and inclusion”; I have fallen into that trap myself in the past when speaking about technology’s ability to amplify society’s power structures), both in the human rights field more widely and the digital rights field specifically, but failed. Perhaps I was not looking in the right places; if so, please point me in the right direction. The situation is such, however, that one hardly needs statistics to conclude that something is seriously amiss in digital rights land. A look around just about any digital rights meeting in Europe will clearly demonstrate the dominance of white privilege, as does a scroll through the staff sections of digital rights organisations’ webpages. Admittedly, this is hardly a scientific method, but sometimes we need to call it as we see it. 

This is an image many of us are used to, and have internalised to such an extent that I, too, as a person who does not fit that picture, took some time to wake up to it. But it clearly does not reflect the composition of our societies. What this leaves us with, is a watchdog that inevitably will have too many blind spots to properly serve its function for all the communities it is supposed to look out for. To change that, focusing on “diversity and inclusion” is not enough. Rather than working on (token) representation, we need an intersectional approach that is ready to meet the challenges and threats to human rights in an increasingly digitising society. Challenges and threats that often disproportionately affect groups that are marginalised. Marginalisation is not a state of being, it is something that is done to others by those in power. Therefore, we need to change the field, its systems and its power structures. In other words: we need a decolonising process for the field and its power structures rather than a solution focused on “including” those with disabilities, from minority or indigenous groups, and the LGBTQI+ community in the existing ecosystem.

How do we do this? I don’t know. And I probably will never have a definitive answer to that question. What I do know, is that the solution will not likely come from the digital rights field alone. It is perhaps trite to refer to Audre Lorde’s statement on how “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” in this context, but if the current field had the answers and the willingness to deploy them, the field would look very different. Lorde’s words also have a lot to offer as a perspective on what we might gain from a decolonising process as opposed to “diversity and inclusion”. While the following quote focuses on the shortcomings of white feminism, it is a useful aide in helping us imagine what strengths a decolonised digital rights field might represent:    

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. … Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”

The task of re-imagining and then rebuilding a new house for the digital rights field is clearly enormous. As digital rights are human rights and permeate all aspects of society, the field does not exist in isolation. Therefore, its issues cannot be solved in isolation either –– there are many moving parts, many of which will be beyond our reach as an organisation to tackle alone (and not just because DFF’s current geographical remit is Europe). But we need to start somewhere, and we need to get the process started with urgency. If we begin working within our sphere of influence and encourage others to do the same in other spaces, to join or to complement efforts, together we might just get very far.

My hope is that, in this process, we can learn from and build on the knowledge of others who have gone before us. Calls to decolonise the academic curriculum in the United Kingdom are becoming increasingly louder, but are being met with resistance. Are there examples of settings in which a decolonising process has been successfully completed? In South Africa, the need to move away from the “able-bodied, hetero-normative, white” standard in the public interest legal services sector is referred to as “transformation“. And efforts to “radically re-imagine and re-design the internet” from Whose Knowledge center the knowledge of marginalised communities on the internet, looking at not only online resources such as Wikipedia, but also digital infrastructure, privacy, surveillance and security. What are the lessons we can learn from those efforts and processes?

This is an open invitation to join us on this journey. Be our critical friend: share your views, critiques and ideas with us. What are successful examples of decolonising processes in other fields that the digital rights field could draw on? What does a decolonised digital rights field look like and what can it achieve? Who will be crucial allies in having this succeed? How can we ensure that those currently being marginalised lead in this effort? Share your views, help us think about this better, so we might start working on a solution that can catalyse structural change.

This post was cross-posted from the Digital Freedom Fund blog

* As observation was the method used for this determination, it is difficult to comment on representation that is less visible than other categories such as religion, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, etc.

Digital rights are *all* human rights, not just civil and political

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights consults with the field

This post was co-authored with Jonathan McCully

Last week, following our strategy meeting, the Digital Freedom Fund hosted the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, for a one-day consultation in preparation for his upcoming thematic report on the rise of the “digital welfare state” and its implications for the human rights of poor and vulnerable individuals.

This consultation highlighted the true breadth of human rights issues that are engaged by the development, deployment, application and regulation of new technologies in numerous aspects of our lives.

The consultation brought together 30 digital rights organisations from across Europe, who shared many examples of new technologies being deployed in the provision of various public services. Common themes emerged, from the increased use of risk indication scoring in identifying welfare fraud, to the mandating of welfare recipients to register for bio-metric identification cards, and the sharing of datasets between different public services and government departments.

While many conversations on digital rights tend to centre around civil and political rights — particularly the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy — this consultation brought into sharp focus the impact new technologies can have on socio-economic rights

At DFF, we subscribe to the mantra that “digital rights are human rights” and we define “digital rights” broadly as human rights applicable in the digital sphere. This consultation highlighted the true breadth of human rights issues that are engaged by the development, deployment, application and regulation of new technologies in numerous aspects of our lives. While many conversations on digital rights tend to centre around civil and political rights –– particularly the rights to freedom of expression and to privacy –– this consultation brought into sharp focus the impact new technologies can have on socio-economic rights such as the right to education, the right to housing, the right to health and, particularly relevant for this consultation, the right to social security.

The UN Special Mandates have already started delving into issues around automated decision-making in a broad spectrum of human rights contexts.

The UN Special Mandates have already started delving into issues around automated decision-making in a broad spectrum of human rights contexts. In August last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression produced a detailed report on the influence of artificial intelligence on the global information environment. This follows on from thematic reports on the human rights implications of “killer robots” and “care robots” by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, respectively.

The poor are often the testing ground for the government’s introduction of new technologies.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has similarly placed the examination of automated decision-making and its impact on human rights at the core of his work. This can already be seen from his reports following his country visits to the United States and United Kingdom. In December 2017, following his visit to the United States, he reported on the datafication of the homeless population through systems designed to match homeless people with homeless services (i.e. coordinated entry systems) and the increased use of risk-assessment tools in pre-trial release and custody decisions. More recently, following his visit to the United Kingdom, he criticised the increased automation of various aspects of the benefits system and the “gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.” In these contexts, he observed that the poor are often the testing ground for the government’s introduction of new technologies.

The digital welfare state seems to present welfare applicants with a trade-off: give up some of your civil and political rights in order to exercise some of your socio-economic rights.

The next report will build upon this important work, and we hope that the regional consultation held last week will provide useful input in this regard. Our strategy meeting presented a great opportunity to bring together great digital rights minds who could provide the Special Rapporteur with an overview of the use of digital technologies in welfare systems across Europe and their impact. It was evident from the discussions that the digital welfare state raises serious human rights concerns; not only when it comes to the right to social security, but the right to privacy and data protection, the right to freedom of information, and the right to an effective remedy are also engaged. As one participant observed, the digital welfare state seems to present welfare applicants with a trade-off: give up some of your civil and political rights in order to exercise some of your socio-economic rights.

It was clear from the room that participants were already exploring potential litigation strategies to push back against the digital welfare state, and we look forward to supporting them in this effort.

Cross-posted on the Digital Freedom Fund blog and Medium.

ECOWAS Court clarifies its human rights jurisdiction: no time limit barring human rights complaints and continuing violations are recognised

ECOWASToday, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice clarified a long-outstanding point of contention: there is no time limit for filing complaints concerning human rights violations. This was held in the case of FAJ and Others v. The Gambia. The Court also clarified that it accepted the doctrine of continuing human rights violations. Judgment was read in court, with the full written judgment expected to be published next week.

Whether or not the ECOWAS Court had a time limit that could bar its jurisdiction over human rights claims brought before it had been unclear for some time. In the case of Femi Falana & Anor. v. The Republic of Benin & 2 Ors. the Court looked at Article 9 of the Court’s Supplementary Protocol to determine whether an application filed in October 2007 regarding an alleged human rights violation that had taken place in April 2004 was admissible. Article 9 sets out the Court’s jurisdiction, specifying in 9(1) and (2) its jurisdiction regarding the interpretation and application of the Community Treaty, directives, and regulations, and acts or omissions by its officials. This is followed by Article 9(3), which read as follows:

“3. Any action by or against a Community Institution or any Member of the Community shall be statute barred after three (3) years from the date when the right of action arose.”

This is then followed by Article 9(4), which sets out the Court’s jurisdiction in human rights matters:

“4. The Court has jurisdiction to determine case of violation of human rights that occur in any Member State.”

No specific indication regarding the time limit in human rights matters – as is present regarding actions brought against the Community or its members – is included in the Protocol. In the Femi Falana case, however, the Court interpreted the time limitation in Article 9(3) as applying to human rights claims as well. As freedom of movement did not constitute a “gross violation of human rights”, in which case no statute of limitation could have applied in accordance with UN GA Resolution 60/147.

The Court clarified today that, for interpretation purposes, the French version of the Supplementary Protocol is the preferred version. It reads as follows:

“L’action en responsabilite contre la Communauté ou celle de la Communauté contre des tiers ou ses agents se prescrivent par trois (3) ans à compter de la réalisation des dommages.”

Accordingly, the Court said, claims for the enforcement of human rights against Member States cannot be barred by the limitation period stated in the Supplementary Protocol. The Court explicitly stated that any previous decisions stating the contrary had hereby  been overruled.

The Court also took the opportunity to address the issue of continuing violations, which so far had never been clarified explicitly by the Court. While in the case of Alade v. Federal Republic of Nigeria the Court considered on the merits a case filed in 2011 by a Nigerian citizen who had been imprisoned since 2003, the issue of continuing violations was not expressly considered in the judgment.  A similar approach was taken in the case of Hydara v. The Gambia.

The Court cleared up any doubts today, when it stated that it recognised the concept of a “continuing harm” in relation to the applicants who had brought a claim concerning their existence in exile from The Gambia – the Court relied on the case of Randolph v. Togo, decided by the UN Human Rights Committee, to reach the conclusion that forced exile was a human rights violation of a continuing nature.

With this decision, the ECOWAS Court establishes itself as currently the most progressive human rights court in Africa when it comes to temporal jurisdiction. Within the region, the East African Court of Justice – which does not have explicit human rights jurisdiction, but can consider complaints about a violation of the East African Community Treaty and also concern human rights – is the most strict. The Court maintains a time limit of 2 months after the violation occurred for filing a claim before it (Article 32 of the Treaty Establishing the East African Community) and in the case of Emmanuel Mwakisha Mjawasi and Others v. The Attorney General of Kenya explicitly rejected the concept of continuing human rights violations. The African Court on Human and Peoples Rights’ rules do not impose an explicit time bar to human rights claims, but do state that applications should be filed “within a reasonable time from the date local remedies were exhausted” (Rule 40 of the Court’s Rules of Procedure). In Mtikila v. Tanzania, the African Court confirmed its recognition of the doctrine of continuing violations.

Looking further afield, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which can refer cases on to the Inter-American Court maintains a time limit of 6 months (Article 32 of the Rules of Procedure). The European Court of Human Rights’ time limit to receive applications is 6 months upon exhaustion of (effective) domestic remedies (Article 35(2) of the European Convention), which will be shortened to 4 months when Protocol No. 15 to the European Convention enters into force.

The ECOWAS Court’s judgment helps in furthering its firm establishment as a human rights court. The Court reportedly ruled on around 249 cases since it commenced its activities in 2001. While statistics on the exact number of human rights applications and rulings are not available, the Court’s human rights mandate has, in the Court’s own words “become the centerpiece of its judicial activities.”

Nani Jansen Reventlow is the former Legal Director of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, one of the parties representing the applicants in this case, and was involved in litigating the case until her departure from MLDI in June 2016.

Digital rights are human rights

As the boundaries between our online and offline lives blur, is there really a distinction between “digital” and other human rights?

UN Photo Eleanor Roosevelt

UN Photo | Eleanor Roosevelt, holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

What do we mean when we talk about “digital rights”? This is a fundamental question that influences the Digital Freedom Fund’s strategy as we define the parameters for supporting the work of activists and litigators in Europe.

A quick search online yields a variety of definitions, most of which focus on the relationship between human beings, computers, networks and devices. Some of the narrower ones focus on the issue of copyright exclusively.

As our lives are digitalised further, does this approach to defining the term make sense?

In many ways, we already live in the sci-fi future we once imagined. The internet of things is here. Our food is kept cold in what we used to call a fridge, but what is now a computer that also has the ability to freeze things. The main way in which we communicate with our colleagues, family and loved ones are our mobile devices and what happens on social media is alleged to have a significant impact on elections. Our data are being collected by governments and corporations alike. In all of these contexts, our basic human rights – our rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, privacy, and the like – are implicated. If there ever was a dividing line between “digital” rights and human rights, it has blurred to the point of irrelevance.

In line with the reality of our time, at DFF we work with a broad definition of digital rights for our grantmaking and field support activities. We consider digital rights to be human rights as applicable in the digital sphere. That is human rights in both physically constructed spaces, such as infrastructure and devices, and in spaces that are virtually constructed, like our online identities and communities.

If digital rights are human rights, then why use a different term? The label “digital rights” merely serves to pinpoint the sphere in which we are exercising our fundamental rights and freedoms. To draw concrete attention to an issue, using a term that expresses the context can help with framing and highlighting the issue in a compact manner. With our digital rights under threat on many fronts, this is important. Just as it was important, in 1995, for Hillary Clinton to state at the Women’s Congress in Beijing that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” and for President Obama in 2016 to stress that LGBT rights are human rights, we should all be aware that digital rights are human rights, too. And they need to be protected.

As we further engage with the digital rights community in Europe, we look forward to supporting their important human rights work and highlighting their successes in this space. Part of that mission also includes creating broader understanding that digital rights are indeed human rights. We hope you will join us in sharing that message.

This article has been cross-posted on the Digital Freedom Fund blog. To follow DFF’s work and be notified when we launch, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter.

Online harassment of women journalists and international law: not “just” a gender issue, but a threat to democracy

Democracy

Image by ydant (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Online harassment of women journalists hinders the free press from operating as it should, which negatively affects the democratic process. Silencing journalists stifles the free flow of information and our ability to exercise our democratic rights; a pluralistic media landscape needs to include women’s voices. Silencing women journalists therefore constitutes an attack on democracy itself. States should address the issue with the gravity it deserves and live up to their international obligations to put in place domestic legal systems capable of responding adequately to these attacks.

 

The problem

When a 14-year-old girl was raped in Finland, journalist Linda Pelkonen covered the case on the news website Uusi Suomi. In her report, she mentioned that, contrary to regular practice, the police had referred to the suspect’s ethnicity: allegedly a Finnish citizen of immigrant background had been involved. A post smearing Pelkonen appeared on the anti-immigrant MV Lehti website, after which she received a host of rape and death threats. After a reader published Pelkonen’s personal phone number in the website’s comment section, encouraging others to inform the journalist of their discontent, she received threatening text messages from 18 different phone numbers, and a phone call telling her she would be raped. Pelkonen reported the threats to the police, informing them that she was scared. Declining to investigate, the regional prosecutor argued that journalists, due to the public nature of their work, needed “to be able to endure more criticism than others.”

UK think tank Demos estimates that women journalists receive three times as many abusive comments on Twitter as their male counterparts

Sadly, Pelkonen’s case is hardly an exception. No comprehensive study on the pervasiveness of online harassment of women journalists has been conducted yet, but the data available paint a gloomy picture. UK think tank Demos estimates that women journalists receive three times as many abusive comments on Twitter as their male counterparts. A survey conducted by the International Women’s Media Foundation showed that over 25% of “verbal, written and/or physical intimidation including threats, to family or friends” took place online.

This week, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media organised its second workshop this year on the safety of female journalists online. In addition to discussing issues such as digital security and civil society initiatives like HeartMob, the workshop addressed the international legal framework within which the online harassment of women journalists should be placed.

“Online” harassment

What are we talking about when we say “online” harassment of women journalists? It covers a broad range of actions, including threats of (sexual) violence, the spreading of falsehoods about a person asserted as facts, the posting of sensitive information online (home address, personal phone number, social security numbers), technological attacks such as falsely shutting down social media accounts, (sexist, racist) insults, and swatting.

The distinction between the “online” and “offline” world is artificial. That the medium used for the harassment is digital, does not mean that actual fear and anxiety do not follow from it.

The distinction between the “online” and “offline” world is artificial. To the extent that any separation between these dimensions of our lives could still be made today, any “online” harassment will always have a “real world” effect. That the medium used for the harassment is digital, does not mean that actual fear and anxiety do not follow from it.

This is underlined by UN Human Rights Council Resolution L.13  on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, which affirms that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression”. Similarly, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media issued recommendations in 2015, stating that “online abuse must be dealt with in the broader context of gender discrimination and violence against women to ensure that the same rights that people have offline must be protected online.”

International legal standards: at the intersection of freedom of expression and gender

The issue of harassment of women journalists needs to be framed from all relevant perspectives: as a freedom of expression issue and as an issue of gender-based violence against women.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is further elucidated by the UN Human Rights Committee in General Comment 34, makes clear that the right to freedom of expression is a key right that can only be restricted under a limited set of circumstances. It is both an individual right of personal self-fulfilment and a collective right, allowing all members of society to receive information and ideas and inform themselves on matters of public interest. Journalists have a special role to play in this democratic process. As the UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the ICCPR, frames it: “A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression … It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.”

For the States that are party to the ICCPR (or one of its regional counterparts, the European Convention on Human Rights, American Convention on Human Rights or African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights), this also entails an obligation to ensure a diverse media landscape, both online and offline.

Attacks on women journalists are attacks on democracy itself.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, often referred to as the “international bill of rights for women” defines discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end it. The CEDAW Committee, which oversees States’ compliance with the Convention, stated in General Recommendation 19, recently updated by General Recommendation 35, that gender-based violence against women constitutes discrimination against women. The Committee defines it as: “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.” Online harassment of women journalists falls squarely within this definition, as is explicitly

6 February 1998 - Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations Headquarters, New York addressing journalists at a press briefing

6 February 1998 – Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations Headquarters, New York addressing journalists at a press briefing.

mentioned in the General Recommendation: “Harmful practices and crimes against women human rights defenders, politicians, activists or journalists are also forms of gender-based violence against women.”

The interlinkage between the right to freedom of expression and women’s right to be free from discrimination is also made explicit: “Women’s right to a life free from gender-based violence is indivisible from and interdependent with other human rights, including the right to … freedom of expression.”

This is where the crux lies: the online harassment of women journalists hinders the free press from operating as it should, which negatively affects the democratic process. Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)4 of the Committee of Ministers on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors sums this up succinctly: “[acts of online harassment of women journalists] which in practice are committed by both State and non-State actors, have a grave chilling effect on freedom of expression including on the ability to access information, on the public watchdog role of journalists and other media actors and on open and vigorous public debate, all of which are essential in a democratic society.”

In other words: attacks on women journalists are attacks on democracy itself.

States’ obligations to create conditions for effective investigation, prosecution and protection

When signing on to a human rights treaty, a State takes it upon itself to respect, protect and fulfil its obligations under that treaty. The obligation to respect means that the State must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of the human rights contained in the treaty; the obligation to protect means that the State must protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses; and the obligation to fulfil means that the State must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment these human rights.

These obligations are applicable to all branches of the State and all public or governmental authorities, at all levels that are in a position to engage the responsibility of the State. They also require the State to ensure that persons are protected from acts by private persons or entities that impair the enjoyment of the relevant human rights.

There is an obligation of the State to put into place a domestic legal system that is capable of responding adequately to threats, ensuring that perpetrators are prosecuted.

Specifically, there is an obligation of the State to put into place a domestic legal system that is capable of responding adequately to threats, ensuring that perpetrators are prosecuted. CEDAW General Recommendation 35 stipulates that “[S]tates parties have to adopt and implement diverse measures to tackle gender-based violence against women committed by non-State actors. They are required to have laws, institutions and a system in place to address such violence.”

Failing to do so constitutes a human rights violation in and of itself: “The failure of a State party to take all appropriate measures to prevent acts of gender-based violence against women when its authorities know or should know of the danger of violence, or a failure to investigate, prosecute and punish, and to provide reparation to victims/survivors of such acts, provides tacit permission or encouragement to acts of gender-based violence against women. These failures or omissions constitute human rights violations.”

National law and online harassment

What recourse can national legal systems offer to those targeted by online harassment? Generally, there are two possible tracks: civil proceedings or the criminal justice system.

Bringing a civil case can be time-consuming, expensive and emotionally draining. It can also have the unwanted effect of drawing additional public attention to the case, which can aggravate the harassment.

Under the civil law system, the target of harassment can initiate legal action against the attacker, suing them for a civil wrong. In some cases, for example if personal photos have been stolen and published, a copyright claim is also an option. The outcome of civil proceedings can be monetary compensation for the claimant and personal vindication for having won (or even pursued) the case. But bringing a civil case can be time-consuming, expensive and emotionally draining. It can also have the unwanted effect of drawing additional public attention to the case, which can aggravate the harassment.

Adequate follow-up by the authorities is not a given. Many legal systems operate with laws that have not been updated to meet the demands of the digital age.

Remedies in the criminal justice system can be a restraining order against the attacker, a criminal penalty, and in some systems also monetary compensation. Pursuing a case within the criminal justice system entails filing a complaint with the authorities, after which prosecution can follow. In most systems, the prosecutor will have discretionary powers to decide whether or not to pursue a case. As illustrated by the case of Pelkonen described above, adequate follow-up by the authorities is not a given. Many legal systems operate with laws that have not been updated to meet the demands of the digital age. Combined with a lack of understanding of modern technology by both law enforcement and judges, this can lead to a frustrating experience for those wanting to file a complaint about harassment. Journalist Amanda Hess described this aptly in her account of trying to file a report on death threats she received, upon which a police officer asked her “What is Twitter?”. In addition, law enforcement can be too under-educated and under-resourced to properly follow up and investigate even if they are willing to register a complaint.

When the regional prosecutor failed to follow up, Pelkonen did not give up. She filed a complaint at the prosecutor’s office together with the Union of Journalists in Finland, arguing that failing to prosecute her case would set a dangerous precedent. Finland’s Prosecutor General then decided to take up the case, which resulted in three men being charged in May 2017. The first hearing in the case is scheduled to take place in early 2018.

A threat to democracy itself

While the prosecution in Pelkonen’s case is a positive (interim) outcome, this by no means is an example of what should happen in these scenarios. The onus should not be on the targeted person to force the justice system into action: justice should be administered as a rule. States can and should do better in this regard.

The onus should not be on the targeted person to force the justice system into action: justice should be administered as a rule.

There is often a tendency to brush gender issues aside as “niche”. Given that women make up about half of the world’s population, this is a questionable argument as such, but it also simply isn’t true.

Silencing journalists stifles the free flow of information and our ability to exercise our democratic rights. There is a clear obligation of States to protect these rights and guarantee a pluralistic media landscape – a media landscape that includes women’s voices. Silencing women journalists is an attack on democracy itself and it should be dealt with, with the gravity it deserves.

This post has been cross-posted on Medium.

Time to change the picture: UN must urgently address lack of women in human rights bodies

588647f41c00002d00d93c03

Photo: Evan Vucci/VP

President Trump provoked outrage and ridicule in January when he signed the anti-abortion “global gag rule” surrounded by a group of stern-looking white men. “As long as you live you’ll never see a photograph of 7 women signing legislation about what men can do with their reproductive organs”, Guardian editor Martin Belam commented on Twitter. Sentiment that was echoed far and wide across the media and internet. Yet, men making decisions that affect women in an overwhelmingly male setting is still very much the rule across the board, including at international organisations, courts, and tribunals.

“men making decisions that affect women in an overwhelmingly male setting is still very much the rule across the board, including at international organisations, courts, and tribunals”

Despite making up nearly half of the world’s population, women are sorely underrepresented in the international institutions that determine international human rights standards and are key forums for international relations and global cooperation. This includes the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, a group of individual human rights experts or groups of experts, who examine and report on human rights. These special procedures oversee the respect of human rights standards by States worldwide, addressing issues such as torture, freedom of expression and discrimination. Historically, only 33.4% of these positions have been held by women. This in spite of the percentage including positions such as the Working Group on the on the issue of discrimination against women, that are usually expected to be held by women only. Currently, 19 out of the 56 Special Procedures have never been led by women, including some, like the mandates on torture and on freedom of expression, that have existed for decades.

While the Human Rights Council has recognised that gender balance is a necessary consideration for the appointment of experts to these positions, no formal procedure has been implemented to guarantee it. As a result, women are less likely to become candidates, less likely to be considered as top choices, and less likely to be elected. This affects the right of women to participate and be represented equally in spaces of authority and decision making; it diminishes the legitimacy and impact of the Human Rights Council and these monitoring bodies; and it reinforces stereotypes about the kind of roles women are interested in or able to aspire to.

In this light, the nominations for appointments during the upcoming Human Rights Council session, starting on 6 June – which includes important positions such as the rapporteurship on the human rights of migrants, and the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism – are of great concern. Out of 21 shortlisted candidates, only 8 are women and none have been ranked as the top pick.

“while a shortlist of candidates from one single region would likely cause great controversy, the near-absence of women in the upcoming Human Rights Council nominations is at risk of going quietly unnoticed”

With this practice, the Human Rights Council – the main human rights body of the UN, which has the equal rights of men and women enshrined in its Charter and treaties – is acting against its own principles. The same UN rule that addresses gender balance prescribes that due consideration is given to equitable geographical representation in the special procedures, and this principle is generally respected. Yet, while a shortlist of candidates from one single region would likely cause great controversy, the near-absence of women in the upcoming Human Rights Council nominations is at risk of going quietly unnoticed. This is the equivalent of no one having noticed that a male US President was signing away women’s reproductive rights surrounded by only men. This needs to change: not only is gender parity an equally important issue as balance in regional representation between the UN member states, it is one that the Human Rights Council is long overdue correcting.

Several organizations and initiatives, including the GQUAL campaign, are currently working to fix these imbalances. They have asked that the Consultative Group of the Human Rights Council adopt gender parity guidelines to guarantee that equal numbers of women and men are shortlisted for these positions. However, these Guidelines, which are yet to be adopted, would still not offer a sustainable and binding solution. What the Human Rights Council should do to achieve this is adopt a Resolution that sets clear markers for achieving better gender balance in its appointments, instructs the Consultative Group and the President of the Council to take gender parity into account when selecting candidates, and calls on Member States to develop practices and procedures that promote gender parity. The  Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should support this. It can take further action to advertise open positions, especially targeting women candidates. The OHCHR should also make use of the powers it already has to postpone elections and extend deadlines if the pool of candidates does not contain a sufficient number of women. It needs to set baselines for representative numbers and enforce them.

“Women are disproportionately affected by human rights issues, ranging from refugee rights to climate change. They must have a voice at all levels of discussion that will lead to decisions that impact them directly.”

Failing to do so, will put the UN Human Rights Council’s overall decision-making legitimacy and capacity at risk. It also places the Council fundamentally out of touch with the current times. Women are disproportionately affected by human rights issues, ranging from refugee rights to climate change. They must have a voice at all levels of discussion that will lead to decisions that impact them directly. If we are serious about changing the picture of men making crucial decisions that affect women, we need to ensure women get an equal number of seats at the table.

This post was co-authored by Nani Jansen Reventlow and Maria Noel Leoni. Nani is an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers and a 2016-2017 Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. She is also a strategic advisor for the GQUAL Campaign, an international platform which seeks to promote parity in international tribunals and monitoring bodies. Maria is a Senior Lawyer for the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and GQUAL Campaign Coordinator.

Looking for women experts? Don’t make it a beauty pageant

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1946 – Birth of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, photo credit: UN Photo

This post was co-authored by Almut Rochowanski

Earlier this month, the BBC held its BBC Expert Women’s Day, bringing together “female experts who’d like to appear on air as contributors to BBC programmes”. The event gathered a group of 24 professionals, which included lawyers, scientists, political analysts, entrepreneurs, coders, cultural leaders and sex educators, selected from a pool of 450 applicants for a ‘media familiarisation day”. They were given tips on how to sound natural on air and given the opportunity to experience appearing on camera in a BBC news studio.

Seemingly, this is a well-intentioned effort to diversify sources. However, the way the BBC is going about it makes it seem more like a beauty contest.

This is the latest edition of a programme the BBC launched in 2013. At first glance, it might look like an earnest attempt to overcome the notorious “all-male panel” problem, something the BBC should be applauded for having acknowledged and taking steps to address (even if, in 2012, it was the only major UK broadcaster to refuse signing a pledge to get more women on screen). But, on closer inspection, there are a number of deeply problematic aspects to the initiative. In fact, it is a spot-on illustration of why media organizations suffer from the all-male panel problem to begin with.

The BBC Academy’s call for applications asked women experts to send in their CV, a letter explaining their interest in being on air and a two-minute video of themselves talking about their area of expertise. By having women experts compete to be acknowledged for what they are – experts – this “TV expert” competition puts the onus on women to correct and overcome the discrimination that holds them back. Once again, women are expected to jump through extra hoops to prove that they are good enough to do what men routinely get to do with no questions asked. Women need to not only have the talent and put in the work to become experts on topics like Brexit, terrorism or classical music, but must also submit to a screen test and mentoring in order to be recognized as authoritative voices in their field of expertise.

The screen test that forms part of the application is particularly troubling. Somehow, it doesn’t seem likely that the BBC requires screen tests of the male climate scientists, business experts or lawyers they invite on their programs.  And while the instructions for the video do not mention looks, women are judged on their appearance much more than men, and nowhere more so than in the media. Imagine a female expert on development aid or the music industry considering even for a split second whether she should put on lipstick before recording her video, and it immediately becomes clear how this initiative perpetuates gender discrimination and is self-defeating in its stated purpose.

The competition is based on the lazy and ignorant assumption that women are underrepresented as experts in broadcast media because they have not tried hard enough or because they just do not shine as brightly as their male colleagues whom the media somehow manage to find without them having to answer to a casting call. The same argument is routinely employed to rationalize the low numbers of women on corporate boards, among tenured professors or in government. And yet we know that women are underrepresented in roles of power and prestige because they are overlookeddismissedignoredexcluded and discriminated against.

Our critique isn’t directed at the women who took part in this year’s BBC Expert Women’s Day, or the many more who applied and were not invited. Quite the contrary. These women are obviously very good at what they do, and the fact that they’re ready to put in the extra work and face new challenges illustrates why they have become leaders in their fields. Our point is that they shouldn’t have had to go through a competition like this to be recognised for their expertise and to get a chance to contribute to public discourse.

If the BBC concludes that they have too few female experts on the air, they ought to first take a good, hard look at themselves and figure out where they went wrong. Have they sufficiently questioned their own habits and assumptions? Have they probed their organization’s practices for hidden biases and discrimination? Do terrorism experts always look male in the imagination of the editorial staff? Have they given proper research a try?

Because, really, it is not difficult to find women experts out there. We are literally everywhere. We are at universitieshospitals, research centers and think tanks. We publish booksblog post and articles, we are on LinkedIn and social media, we win prizes and fellowships, we are part of professional networks. In addition, numerous databases have been set up to assist researchers who might be at a loss in identifying women experts for their news coverage. There is The Women’s RoomSheSource, Women Also Know Stuff and The OpEd Project, to name but a few. Having women compete to have their voices heard in a space where their opinions should be sought out as often as those of their male counterparts is not a solution. Rather, by failing to acknowledge and reject the systematic inequalities that women face, this casting call for women experts perpetuates the problem it ostensibly tries to solve.

Almut Rochowanski is a co-founder and coordinator of the Chechnya Advocacy Network. Nani Jansen Reventlow is a human rights lawyer with Doughty Street Chambers and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

This post has been cross-posted on Medium.