Over twenty years have elapsed since the Human Rights Commission, in Resolution 1993/45, established the mandate under which the four special rapporteurs for freedom of opinion and expression have worked. This foundational resolution established the parameters for a special rapporteur who would promote and protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The Commission requested that the special rapporteur
1. gather all relevant information, wherever it may occur, of discrimination against, threats or use of violence and harassment, including persecution and intimidation, directed at persons seeking to exercise or to promote the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression…
2. as a matter of high priority, to gather all relevant information, wherever it may occur, of discrimination against, threats or use of violence and harassment, including persecution and intimidation, against professionals in the field of information seeking to exercise or to promote the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression…
The Commission celebrated the freedom of expression as articulated in Article 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR, advocated the independence of the mandate-holders, and emphasized the importance of government cooperation. Resolution 1993/45 requested that the special rapporteur “seek and receive credible and reliable information from Governments, non-governmental organizations and any other parties” while also “urg[ing] all Governments to cooperate with and assist the Special Rapporteur in the performance of his or her tasks and to furnish all information requested.” It specified that “professionals in the field of information” should be understood to include, among others, “journalists, editors, writers and authors, publishers and printers. ”
The Human Rights Council has repeatedly extended the mandate, expanding upon the foundational nature of the 1993 resolution. Resolutions 7/36 (2008) and 12/16 (2009) acknowledged that freedom of expression is “one of the essential foundations of a democratic society” and “an important indicator of the level of protection of other human rights and freedoms.” Demonstrating the far-reaching importance of the freedom of expression, the Council highlighted issues of concern that serve as barriers to exercise of freedom of expression, such as limited official transparency and access to government information, illiteracy and failures to educate girls and boys, concentration of media ownership, lack of accountability for attacks on journalists and other media workers, the silencing effect of violence against women, abuses of states of emergency, and many other core topics.
Resolution 7/36 echoed the limitation clause from Article 19 of the Covenant but suggested a narrow reading, stressing that national security, including counter-terrorism, should not be “used unjustifiably or arbitrarily to restrict the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Resolution 12/16 further expressed concern that governments too often impose “restrictions that are not consistent” with that clause. It highlighted the importance of refraining from imposing limitations especially in situations that undermine:
(i) Discussion of government policies and political debate; reporting on human rights, government activities and corruption in government; engaging in election campaigns, peaceful demonstrations or political activities, including for peace or democracy; and expression of opinion and dissent, religion or belief, including by persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups;
(ii) The free flow of information and ideas, including practices such as the banning or closing of publications or other media and the abuse of administrative measures and censorship;
(iii) Access to or use of information and communication technologies, including radio, television and the Internet.
The Council has recognized that the freedom of expression may also be abused to promote “false images and negative stereotypes of vulnerable groups” and to use contemporary technologies “for purposes contrary to respect for human rights, in particular the perpetration of violence against and exploitation and abuse of women and children, and disseminating racist and xenophobic discourse or content.” The Council has encouraged States and non-state actors to condemn such expressions that are so at odds with the inherent values of human rights law. At the same time, the Council has reaffirmed “the positive role” that freedom of expression and open debate can play in “combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
The most recent resolution of the Human Rights Council, Resolution 25/2 adopted in March of 2014, extended the period of the mandate another three years and concluded with the following:
3. Urges all States to cooperate fully with and assist the Special Rapporteur in the performance of his/her tasks, to provide all necessary information requested by him/her and to consider favourably his/her requests for visits and for implementing his/her recommendations;
4. Requests the Secretary-General to provide the assistance necessary to the Special Rapporteur to fulfil his/her mandate, in particular by placing adequate human and material resources at his/her disposal;
5. Requests the Special Rapporteur to submit an annual report to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly covering all activities relating to his/her mandate, with a view to maximizing the benefits of the reporting process.