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Press Briefing: Ambassador Donahoe on HRC 20 Priorities, Internet Freedom Fellows Program
June 21, 2012

Opening Statement of Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR)
Press Briefing
United Nations Office, Geneva
June 20, 2012

People speaking at a press conference
Ambassador Donahoe at a Press Briefing with the 2012 Internet Freedom Fellows

Ambassador Donahoe:  Hello everybody, and thank you for coming.  I want to start with a word about our Internet Freedom Fellows program.

As you know, the promotion and protection of human rights online is a top priority for the Obama administration.  At the Human Rights Council, the U.S. has placed great emphasis on Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Assembly and Association, in part because we see these fundamental freedoms as the way to facilitate the exercise of all other rights.

As all human activity from the economic and the political realms, to the social and artistic realms gravitates from the offline world to the online world, we need to make sure that these enduring and fundamental freedoms are not eroded simply because they are being exercised in the digital realm.  The Internet Freedom Fellows program is an initiative that reflects our awareness that we all need to be vigilant about the protection of these traditional and enduring rights in the online space.

Social media users have played a major role in the demand for democracy unfolding across the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, and specifically in the crisis situations dealt with at the Human Rights Council.  The Internet has become the vital medium through which journalists, activists and citizens connect with each other and share stories in ways that are changing their societies.

Over two billion people are now connected to the Internet and in the next 20 years the online community will grow to more than four billion.  As more people go online and contribute ideas, the network and global community becomes more valuable to all of us.  When individuals are blocked from sharing their ideas and information, this global conversation is stifled and the Internet is diminished for everyone.  The U.S. believes we must be vigilant in protecting fundamental freedoms online today, to preserve the Internet’s profound and life-enhancing role for the next generation of users.

The Internet Freedom Fellows program is part of this effort, and follows up on Secretary Clinton’s pledge to find innovative ways to promote the use of the Internet in support of human rights. The program is funded by the Department of State and managed by the U.S. Mission in Geneva.

This year’s fellows who are here with me were nominated for their innovative use of the Internet in promoting and defending human rights.  They will be in Geneva for three days before traveling to Washington and then to Silicon Valley to meet with key government and civil society representatives.  I’d like to just really briefly introduce this year’s fellows.

Dlshad Othman is a Syrian activist and IT engineer.  He’s to my right.

Emin Milli is a writer and dissident from Azerbaijan with a wicked sense of humor.

Pranesh Prakash is from the Center for Internet and Society in India.

Koundjoro Gabriel Kambou is a journalist and reporter from Burkino Faso.

Soheap Chak is Deputy Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and one of Cambodia’s leading human rights bloggers.

And Andres Azpurua, founder of the digital initiative promoting the right of freedom of association in Venezuela.

We are just honored to have all of you and are awed by your efforts and work around the world.  If any of you get a chance to talk to them individually, they are actually really remarkable people leading the way for all of us.

I do want to acknowledge, we’re very pleased also to have Rebecca MacKinnon with us.  She is a scholar and activist, I’m sure many of you know, who focuses on freedom in the digital space.  We are greatly appreciative of her efforts and honored to have her with us for this program.

I also want to comment, and if you would like to attend the Fellows and Ms. MacKinnon will be highlighting a program later this afternoon which will include participants on the web from all around the world, and it will be a panel discussion on the Internet and human rights in Room 25 at 4:00 o’clock. I hope you can join us for that.

Now let me really briefly turn to the current Human Rights Council session and make a couple of general comments and then highlight some of our specific priorities for this session.

First and most obviously, Syria will remain on our agenda as a focal point and draw the attention of the Human Rights Council.  As you are all well aware, the international community continues to grapple with the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Syria and discussions are continuing at the highest level of all governments.  Many of you have followed the Human Rights Council work over the past year as we have tracked the crisis in Syria.  We have held special sessions, as you know, in April, August and December of last year, and we just recently had a special session on June 1st focusing specifically on the massacre in El Houleh. And we will have a follow-up from the Commission of Inquiry, which will report separately on this particular massacre in the current session.

We also intend to push forward with another resolution at the end of this regular session with the goal of ensuring that there will be accountability for the massacres, and to address violence against children in particular.  We understand that it’s the responsibility of all of us at the Human Rights Council to do everything in our power to defend the human rights of the Syrian people, with a view to ensuring accountability, and preventing impunity especially in this very extreme case where both the High Commissioner and the Commission of Inquiry have stated that crimes against humanity may have been committed.

At this session we also expect affirmative results in a number of other important U.S. priority areas.  I will draw your attention particularly to two thematic initiatives — one with direct relevance to the broad issue of Internet Freedom and the other with particular importance to women’s human rights.

Of relevance to today’s event, we are firmly behind a Swedish-led initiative on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet.  The United States is pleased to be part of a cross-regional core group with Brazil, Nigeria, Tunisia and Turkey along with Sweden in presenting this initiative.  The resolution emphasizes the core principle that freedom of expression and human rights must be protected online as they are offline.  In addition, the resolution recognizes the Internet as a driving force in development and promotes the increased goal of Internet access.  This is important because it is the first time this council has substantively addressed the issue of human rights online in a resolution, and we will see this as a landmark resolution if passed.

Second, and also very importantly in this session, the United States is working with Botswana, Colombia, Iraq, Mexico, Slovakia, Turkey and other countries on a resolution on the right to a nationality, in particular for women and children.  This resolution seeks to raise awareness of a human right that although enshrined in Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has long been under-recognized.  The aim is to encourage governments and the broader UN community to prevent and reduce statelessness, particularly by addressing discrimination against women.  We expect broad co-sponsorship from all regions, and hope for a consensus outcome which will send an important signal of international unity on this important issue.

In addition we’re pleased to announce that on June 25th we will be hosting a side event on “Remedies for Trafficking Victims” together with Germany and the Philippines.  Human trafficking is a widespread problem that challenges us to confront one of the most basic freedom and dignity issues for the individuals trapped in that system.  The event is intended to highlight the fact that today it is estimated as many as 27 million people around the world are victims of modern slavery, what we sometimes call trafficking in persons.  The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Ambassador Luis Cdebaca will be joining us from Washington to highlight this event, and we will also have members of civil society and law enforcement from both Germany and the Philippines.  That event will be in Room 24 on Monday, June 25th from 1:00 to 3:00.

Last, with respect to country specific initiatives, on which we always place a priority, this session we will be supporting an EU-led resolution on Belarus.  This past year has been a particularly difficult period for the people of Belarus.  Nearly every day there is a new arrest or a new restrictive law or further harassment against civil society and the media.  The Council took a step last year by calling for a report on Belarus, but the Lukashenko regime’s continued lack of cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner and the further degradation of the situation highlights the need for more action at this council.  The United States believes the next step should be the creation of a Special Rapporteur to continue to investigate and put a spotlight on the situation in Belarus.

So those are our top priorities.  There are many, many other initiatives in this session, but those are the ones we are particularly focused on today.