Human rights study shows increasing violations of freedom of online expression in Gulf Nations

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Eran Kohen Behar/Staff
A study from Berkeley Law's International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights identified an increase in violations of freedom of online expression and the use of surveillance technology against human rights defenders in Gulf regions.

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A study from UC Berkeley School of Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, or IHRLC, and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights identified an increasing trend of violation of freedom of online expression and the use of surveillance technology against human rights defenders, or HRDs, in Gulf regions and neighboring countries.

The report analyzes how domestic laws, including anti-cybercrime and anti-terrorism laws, have been used to target HRDs against international human rights laws and standards in 10 countries in the region. These countries include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates, or UAE.

“The report shows that in so many countries around the world, human rights defenders really face a dangerous climate,” said Harriet Steele, third-year Berkeley Law student and IHRLC intern. “Because it is a global problem, it requires a global solution.”

The report identified 225 violations of freedom of online expression by the states against HRDs between May 2018 and October 2020 through the use of publicly accessible sources, such as reports from human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

The report highlights the fact that governments have not only have access to broad legislation, but also use surveillance, spyware, arbitrary arrests and torture to target human rights activists, according to Steele.

“We see this a really frightening trend of transnational cooperation where states are repressing activists when they are outside the countries they are criticizing,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, IHRLC clinical teaching fellow. “They are reaching across their territorial boundaries targeting activists outside and bringing them to the country to punish them within their territorial jurisdiction.”

The report urges the 10 countries in the report to eliminate domestic laws criminalizing online freedom of expression, and for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to examine transnational cooperation among governments.

Michael Khambatta, Geneva representative of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, said the report is a useful tool for day-to-day human rights advocacy.

Khambatta added he expects to use the report as a reference on human rights resolutions in the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2022.

The report also identifies the role the international community plays in enabling “problematic legislation,” such as the anti-cybercrime laws, according to Pokharel.

For example, in 2004, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia endorsed the proposed model cybercrime law drafted by the UAE, the report stated.

The UAE-drafted model law criminalizes online content “contrary to the public order and morals,” which have greatly expanded the ability of governments to criminalize online views of which they disapprove, according to the report. The legislation was adopted by the UAE in 2006 and has been replicated and referenced in other states near the region.

Khambatta, Pokharel and Steele added the report demonstrates how technology operates as a double-edged sword in the context of human rights advocacy.

“Technology offers a lot of hopes to human rights activists and their ability to connect with each other,” Steele said,” At the same time, it gives opportunities for governments to engage in practices like surveillance.”

Pokharel stated in many cases, the internet possesses “great potential for advocacy, organization and assembly” in areas where in-person advocacy is repressed. However, this report demonstrates how the states have used the internet as a way to surveil and punish HRDs instead.

Some U.N. special rapporteurs have been calling for the need for more control over surveillance technology, according to Khambatta.

The report also recommended the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to track developments in the surveillance regimes in the region and all states to implement a moratorium on the use, acquisition and sale of surveilling technology, which is extremely relevant to the United States, Steele added.

“The value of this report shows how extensively these things have been used,” Khambatta said.

For example, Steele detailed how a former National Security Agency employee aided in setting up the surveillance used to target HRDs in the UAE.

Pokharel noted the United States should look into the knowledge and expertise being transferred and used in other regions.

“(Recommendations for the U.S. include) definitely considering the U.S.’s role in the region and oftentimes its role in perpetuating harms in the region,” Steele said.

Contact Winnie Lau at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @winniewy_lau.

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Pokharel as saying “We see this a really frightening trend of transnational cooperation where states are repressing activists when they are inside the countries they are criticizing.” In fact, Pokharel was referring to activists outside of the countries they are criticizing.