I have been in Oslo for the past day in order to celebrate the Norwegian Government’s launch of a new strategy that puts freedom of expression at the center of its human rights policy. My colleague in the OSCE, Dunja Mijatovic, and I participated with the Foreign Minister in a launch event, and the OSCE wrote it up here, where you can also find some more information. My remarks are here:

Mr. Foreign Minister, Excellencies,

Thank you to the Government of Norway for the privilege of being here today.

Many governments around the world stand for freedom of opinion and expression. A handful stand with conviction, implementation, and resources, and this Government is one of them. When Elisabeth Salvesen of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited me to join today’s launch, it was not a question of yes or no, but when. I see Norway’s support repeatedly within and outside the UN system. What Norway is doing today, as a central matter of foreign policy, is critically important, something I hope to see emulated, and I could not be happier to collaborate with you in your work.

In my home country, the United States, we are celebrating today, as a national holiday, the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. As an American speaking abroad in the context of my role as UN rapporteur, I would not normally frame my remarks with reference to an American, but King long ago became a global icon and inspiration reaching well beyond his national community, much as Gandhi or Mandela, and of course the Nobel Committee honored him fifty-one years ago here in Oslo.

Part of King’s legacy is extended by Norway’s commitments today.

King was a communicator, and while his battle was first and foremost a battle for the rights of African American citizens, it was also a battle for human freedom that relied upon freedom of expression.

In his final, famous Moutaintop speech delivered the day before his assassination in 1968, King recalls the struggles in the streets when he and his fellow protesters faced barriers to their expression and protest – police dogs, county jails, water cannons, beatings, church burnings, killings. He reminds his audience of the sacrifice made by those expressing their dissent from a system of oppression.

“But somewhere I read,” King said, “of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press.”

The knowledge of rights, the very basic access to the information that such rights exist – these were essential components of his power. He enjoyed a power of persuasion and leadership in part because he was saying, ‘we enjoy THESE rights, we are not demanding NEW rights, we know what these rights are, we do not need or desire violence to claim them, indeed we reject all forms of violence – we just need the ability and the space to express that position.’

I think of Norway’s new strategy as fundamentally tied to this part of King’s legacy — to the knowledge of rights, a pillar of human rights that is directly reflected in the third element of the strategy, access to information but also integral to independent media and protection, the other two pillars of the strategy.

International human rights law protects exactly these rights – as law. The law protects such rights as legally binding obligations on all states. Indeed, this is why the Human Rights Council entrusts individuals with the role to monitor human rights as special rapporteurs – because governments understand that we are talking about law, about rule of law, not mere policy choice.

Those legions who have been inspired by King’s example somewhere read about freedom of expression. As it says in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone enjoys the right to hold an opinion without interference; everyone enjoys the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, through any media, regardless of frontiers.

As King saw and as billions experience today, the very hallmark of a repressive society is not merely the denial of rights, but the denial of the existence of these rights. For this reason, the strategy’s third pillar is all-encompassing, a basic necessity to ensure that people everywhere have access to the knowledge of rights.

I believe that King would thrill to the idea that freedom of expression could become an essential element of any government’s foreign and human rights policy. The three pillars of Norway’s strategy — independent media, protection of those exercising their rights, and access to information — form the basic core of freedom of expression.

The kinds of threats to expression have not changed in principle from King’s days, and pre-date even his era. But they have morphed into novel forms, particularly in a digital age. I believe that Norway’s new strategy should and will become a bulwark against the rising tide of fear and repression of people’s writings, opinions, art, scholarship, satire, and more – both online and offline. It will especially do so if we are able to confront at least these four major threats to freedom of expression globally:

  1. One, basic oppression of those exercising their Article 19 rights. From Azerbaijan to Saudi Arabia, from China to Thailand, The Gambia to Burundi, from Ecuador to Mexico, Iran to Myanmar, and many many other places, those seeking to express themselves — their opinions, their identities, their dissent — face the threat of surveillance, arrest, prosecution, even killing. They face threats of prosecution for blasphemy and defamation, and other politically trumped up charges; they are disappeared for books they publish or slaughtered for opinions they’ve adopted; they are forced underground for expressing what governments or certain sectors of society think should not be expressed. Individuals, civil society and unpopular and vulnerable minorities need, more than ever, the support of the international community. They need the affirmation that these rights matter, they need states to use their political and economic muscle in favor of freedom of expression, they need the moral support, legal commitment and practical example of the UN system.
  2. Two, the threats to a free and independent media. Everywhere we look, there is consolidation of media ownership, and with it, a cozy relationship between media and government, undermining the basic skepticism that should be understood as the heart of independent journalism. We see governments insisting on a definition of who qualifies as a journalist that is woefully out of step with the times, in order to exclude citizen journalists, human rights NGOs, bloggers, even academics, from the basic rights to freedom of expression. We see them target sources and whistleblowers in ways that undermine access to information and basic democratic principles. More than ever, we need to support independent media, the investigative work of journalism, and the ever-growing role of those imparting information online. We need to confront the impunity enjoyed by those who attack journalists.
  3. Three, growing censorship and abuse of the Internet. The Human Rights Council and General Assembly have repeated the important principle that offline rights apply online. But let’s admit a sad truth: while we once discussed the Internet as the new frontier for freedom of expression, the great democratizer of speech and access to information, discussion today focuses on the Internet as a threat – as a terrorist recruitment tool, as a haven for offensive behavior, as a forum for incitement. This perception has led to unprecedented levels of censorship, restriction and surveillance, threatening the very survival of the greatest tool for access to information the world has ever known.
  • First, censorship has become increasingly sophisticated and pervasive. Filtering, throttling, and even shutting down Internet service to entire cities and towns to keep unwanted information from citizens – these are the contemporary tools against access to information. We see them in too many states to mention here. I am also concerned that we too often rely on corporate actors to decide what to censor, undermining basic public accountability and transparency.
  • Second, it is under threat from a model international governance that privileges restrictions over freedoms. Thankfully, the most recent World Summit on Information Society, WSIS +10, preserved the principle of a free and globalized internet under the stewardship of multi-stakeholder governance. This is essential but endangered.
  • Third, the Internet is becoming a place of great insecurity and mistrust as governments devote themselves to mass surveillance of online spaces, undermine encryption and tools for anonymity, arrest people for their social media posts or put them under suspicion for their search histories. Proposals in the United Kingdom and United States, and new laws in France, raise concern on their own, for what they say about the future of online freedom and security, but also the message they send to the non-democratic states of the world.
  1. Four, the increasing use of national security and public order as rationales to restrict expression. For all of the above, governments invariably respond that Article 19 allows for restrictions for legitimate purposes. This is true. But let’s recall that restrictions may only be applied in accordance with robust legal process, and only when a necessary and proportionate means of achieving that legitimate objective. For every restriction, we need a chorus responding: show us why this is necessary, why other less invasive tools of security or strategies to maintain stability are unavailable, how it is proportionate, and so forth. The mere incantation of national security must be challenged at every opportunity lest it swallow whole the rights everyone enjoys.

I suspect that we could all fill out these four threats with examples, and these are but four of many threats, but I will leave that to another time. I want to conclude on a higher note, the note that Norway rings in with its new and, I believe, landmark strategy. So I’ll conclude where I began.

In his speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Prize, Martin Luther King Jr said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” This is the promise of human rights and, indeed, freedom of expression – freedom for the body, the mind, and the spirit.

Norway’s steps today revive that inspiration and should inspire other governments to follow your lead, Mr. Foreign Minister, and inspire activists around the world to know that their work is right, honorable, and necessary. I therefore close with my congratulations to you.

Thank you very much.

Norway, Freedom of Expression and MLK