June 6, 2023

Volker Türk issued a clarion call to protect and expand social space, arguing that this is the only way to enable all of us “to play a role in political, economic and social life, at all levels, from local to global”.

Hate speech is not monitored

He said that with more and more decision-making migrating online, “with private companies playing an outsized role, having an open, secure digital public square has never been more important”.

And yet states struggle and “often fail” to protect the online space for the public good, “swaying between a laissez-faire approach that has enabled violence and dangerous hate speech remain uncheckedand overly broad regulations used as a bat against those who exercise their right to free expression, including journalists and human rights defenders,” he added.

Invest in multilingual markets

He called on major companies to invest more in preventing and responding to online harm, especially in the non-English speaking environment, emphasizing that “doing business in any location requires you to ensure that you can do so safely, in accordance with the Principles of Business and Human Rights guidelines.”

The UN rights chief said creating civic space is key to human rights, peace, development and for “sustainable and resilient societies”, but that it is coming under increasing pressure from unnecessary restrictions and laws.

This includes a crackdown on peaceful gatherings, internet shutdowns, and online bullying and harassment.

Expand space as ‘condition’

“States must step up their efforts to protect and expand civic space as a condition for people to sustainably enjoy all the other rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from access to health care and clean water and quality education to social protection and labor rights,” argued Mr Türk.

Pressure on civilian space persists despite inspiring efforts from civil society groups, he continued.

“Civil society is one important factor for trust between governments and the people they serve and is often the bridge between the two. If governments want to remove barriers to public participation, they must protect this space, for the benefit of all – online and offline.”