I was very happy when I was asked to be guest editor of this edition of GenderIT.org on women human rights defenders (WHRD) and national cyber security policies. This is an important and timely issue for WHRDs because the misuse of counter-terrorism legislation to quell dissent and further marginalise minority voices is on the rise.
This edition of GenderIT.org asks how WHRDs are understanding and reacting to the use of the rhetoric of security and counter-terrorism to shrink the space for freedom of expression online and to justify invasive monitoring technologies. It also seeks to better understand how WHRDs are experiencing the manifestations of these abuses, including what security measures they are taking to protect them selves on line and in their communications.
In recognition of the need for a strong and vocal civil society, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that everyone has the right to exercise their freedom of opinion and expression, including to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of her choice” (1). Further, it has also been recognised by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression that the internet “has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression” (2).
States may legitimately restrict this right (as is necessary) for the protection of national security or of public order. However, this legitimate restriction is often abused in order to quiet dissent or marginalised voices. For example the Special Rapporteur on human’s rights defenders has noted in her most recent report that she has received cases of defenders being convicted on “terrorism charges in relation to articles, blog entries and/or tweets in which the defendants in question have called for reforms in favour of human rights” (3). Further, as is explored in the interviews in this edition of GenderIT.org, WHRDs are increasingly faced with the reality of technological interferences such as internet and network blackouts, as well as physical risk (real or threatened) as a result of online activity.
Combating the chilling effect of invasive and discriminatory security legislation is particularly important because of the inter-sectionality of vulnerabilities around this topic. The Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism reminded us in his 2009 report examining counter-terrorism measures from a gendered perspective that governments use _“broad definitions of ‘terrorism’ to punish those who do not conform to traditional gender roles and to suppress social movements…”_(4).
However, even though security and counter-terrorism is an area where the work and analysis of WHRDs is desperately needed, there is a tendency for women and marginalised groups to shy away from facing issues of digital security head-on, thereby increasing their (and their networks) vulnerability while they carry out their work. There is a common theme running through this edition of GenderIT.org — that of not knowing what the threats are and of needing more WHRDs trainers on digital security.
The content of this edition of GenderIT.org therefore unpacks many of the important questions around WHRDs and cyber security policies.
Cordaid’s report ‘Towards an effective and inclusive global counter-terrorism policy: setting up a dialogue between civil society organisations and UN entities’ explores how WHRDs can engage with governments and policy makers around lawful use of security legislation.
The article Collateral Damage of the Cyberwar in Syria by Jennifer Radloff and Grady Johnson is an extremely important piece to read as it exposes the bitter truth about just how far governments and private companies can go to violate freedom of expression and freedom to privacy on-line.
The interviews with Yara Sallam by Mavic Cabrera-Balleza and Dr Layla Yunus by Zooey Schock expose the challenging reality for WHRDs engaging in spaces where women are traditionally excluded and about the need to know more about on line dangers and capacity building within WHRD networks.
The interview with Tara Madden and Wojtek Bogusz from Frontline Defenders by Margarita Salas rounds off the WHRD interviews by bringing the perspective of an HRD protection organisation, including the digital security needs that they see when working with WHRDs and what they are doing to address those needs.
And finally, this edition of GenderIT.org includes the preliminary results of the first international survey of the online threats faced by WHRDs. This is extremely important because knowing what the risks are and learning how our contemporaries are overcoming them supports WHRDs to continue their important work.
The message that I take from this edition of GenderIT.org is that it is incredibly important to get out of our comfort zones when it comes to technology and online security. By doing this and challenging ourselves to understand how and where our rights are at risk, we will be able to hold governments and private companies to account for violating our rights in the name of security, while at the same time protecting ourselves as much as possible.
This article is a part of APC’s “Connect your rights: Internet rights are human rights” campaign financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency .
(1) The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 19,
(2) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue*, Paragraph 20, 16 May 2011, A/HRC/17/27
(3) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Paragraph 56, 10 August 2012, A/67/292
(4) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Paragraph 27, 03 August 2009, A/64/211 p>