GSO Commentary — Protecting freedoms in the on-line world

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was an outspoken participant in the panel discussion at the plenary of the Human Rights Council in late February.  The panel addressed “The Protection of Freedom of Expression on the Internet”.  He observed that the world is moving on-line very fast and “big time”, and that is why the Human Rights Council needs to be concerned that “the freedoms of an off-line world must be protected in the on-line world”.

This was the first time that the Human Rights Council was hosting a comprehensive debate on the Internet, and it was a lively debate indeed. There were six panelists, including Minister Bildt, Google executive William Echikson, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank De La Rue from Guatemala, and other articulate human rights officials from South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil. The panel was moderated by Riz Khan of Al Jazeera (and formerly of CNN), although the session was technically chaired by a Vice President of the Human Rights Council. Mr. Khan skillfully moderated an interactive introductory panel discussion, however he was interrupted several times by points of order led by the delegate from Cuba, but supported by the delegates of China, Russia and at times also of Ecuador, to challenge his role as moderator when the rules of procedure require that only officers of the Human Rights Council may preside in official sessions of the Council. The Vice President, however, responded more than once by firmly asserting his presence as the formal presiding officer and then delegating the proceedings back to Mr. Khan. The disgruntled delegates were clearly not happy with the format – or were perhaps opting to challenge the process for other underlying reasons (e.g. animosity towards promoting Internet freedoms generally, or possibly something to do with other debates that were also on the Council’s agenda, such as the human rights situation in Syria).

The popularity of the panel discussion, however, was clearly illustrated by what happened when the panelists had completed their introductory round of interactions with Mr. Khan. Immediately the room saw a flurry of Council members standing up and waving their country placards for recognition to be placed on the list of speakers to comment on the topic and the panelists’ remarks. It was quite a sight. The Secretariat was subsequently challenged by the procedures it followed on this matter, defended by the Vice President as being consistent with the rules for listing speakers in the order that they display their placards. However, since it appeared that almost all of the Council’s members (53 in total) were waving their placards all at once, it would seem unrealistic to infer that the Secretariat could possibly prepare such an orderly list. At the end of the allotted time, when there were still 10 or more not yet recognized, the Philippine delegate protested that all of his neighbors had been placed high up on the list, while he appeared at the bottom of the list, even though they had all waved their placards at the same time. We certainly sympathize with the Philippine delegate and agree that the listing order did appear to be arbitrary – not to blame the secretariat, though, since the chaotic display of placards had to be processed under the existing rules of visual recognition of requests to speak. We think the Council might benefit from an electronic system, although this has its drawbacks, too. What is striking is the fact that this was a truly popular debate on which almost all Council members wanted to have their say.