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How can UN resolutions make it safer to be a journalist?

Since 2012, eight landmark resolutions have been approved by various UN bodies on the issue of the safety of journalists. IFEX's 5-minute guide explains what they are, and how civil society can use them to keep governments accountable.

A wide view of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations during the UN Human Right Council's 34th regular session, Geneva, Switzerland, 27 February 2017
A wide view of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations during the UN Human Right Council's 34th regular session, Geneva, Switzerland, 27 February 2017

UN Photo/Elma Okic

Never has the United Nations (UN) been so focussed on the issue of journalistic safety. Since 2012, when the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was launched, several landmark resolutions have been passed. The need to protect the practice of journalism is higher than ever on the UN agenda. The challenge? Turning words on paper into reality on the ground. For civil society organisations, this starts by increasing our understanding of these resolutions, monitoring their application, and demanding government follow-through and accountability.

"When journalists are targeted, societies as a whole also pay the price. The kind of news that gets silenced - corruption, conflicts of interest, illegal trafficking – is exactly the kind of information the public needs to know."
Statement from UN Secretary General António Guterres, on 2 November 2017, the day United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/163 designated to be the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists


What you need to know about UN resolutions for the safety of journalists

We've organised this explainer in five sections, followed by a timeline of key resolutions relating to journalist safety and impunity and links to additional resources:

1. What are they?
2. What are they supposed to achieve?
3. Who is involved in their development?
4. How is implementation monitored?
5. How can civil society monitor, strengthen, and use them?

But first, some acronyms that will come in handy:

HRC: United Nations Human Rights Council
OHCHR: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN: United Nations
UNESCO: United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
UNGA United Nations General Assembly
UNSC: United Nations Security Council
UNSG: United Nations Secretary General
UPR: Universal Periodic Review


1. What are they?

Since 2012, eight resolutions on the safety of journalists have been passed by various UN bodies. Together, they provide a framework for the promotion of the safety of journalists at the global level, and, more importantly, at the national and local level. Four resolutions were passed by the UNGA, three by the HRC, one by the UNSC and another by UNESCO. Previous to 2012, only two resolutions were focused on this particular issue; one passed by UNESCO in 1997 and another, by the UNSC, in 2006. Resolutions are available in the six official UN languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.


2. What are they supposed to achieve?

UN resolutions reflect the views of the UN Member States and they provide policy recommendations. Although these are not binding, they do establish political commitments. And they have evolved, providing more concrete recommendations which can be used in advocacy efforts. HRC Resolution 32/13 affirmed that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression". According to IFEX member ARTICLE 19, HRC Resolution 33/2 (2016) "broke new ground", by calling on States to take action on specific issues including arbitrary detentions, encryption, digital security and gender-based attacks.


3. Who is involved in their development?

The process of drafting a resolution usually starts with an informal proposal made by one or more UN Member States, known as sponsors. Through informal engagement with other State delegations in the corresponding UN body, co-sponsors may decide to join the initiative, and a draft resolution is then officially presented for discussion at the relevant sessions of the UNGA, the HRC, the UNSC, or the UNESCO General Conference.


4. How is implementation monitored?

Monitoring the implementation of UN resolutions is a collective task. Civil society organisations can supervise governments' progress towards implementing their commitments, and can advocate, when necessary, to ensure they follow through. Media, in their role as watchdogs, can report on whether governments are fulfilling their duties as outlined in resolutions. However, the UN system also has its own monitoring procedures. In most cases, resolutions are followed-up with a report, which is prepared by the OHCHR, on behalf of the UNSG in the case of UNGA resolutions; by the OHCHR in the case of HRC resolutions; and by the UNESCO Secretariat in the case of UNESCO resolutions. For the UNSC, information is provided in the UNSG reports on the protection of civilians.


5. How can civil society monitor, strengthen, and use them?

Create and work with coalitions to actively engage in the development of UN resolutions by advocating and providing inputs via local governments, foreign embassies, UN delegations and informal groupings of States that are supportive on the issue of journalists' safety, such as those recently created at the UN in New York and Geneva, and UNESCO in Paris. Early in the process, civil society groups may be able to provide inputs, ideally in a coordinated manner, by nurturing relationships with UN delegations.

• When a resolution is being informally discussed, advocate for your country to co-sponsor it, particularly if it has not done so in the past. This will strengthen requests for government accountability. The majority of UN human rights resolutions are adopted by consensus. However, even then, States are invited to "cosponsor" the resolution, as a way of showing their heightened support for the commitments it contains. The more cosponsoring States a resolution receives, the more it demonstrates that it is a global priority.

Make the resolution's commitments widely available; raise awareness about its recommendations among civil society groups in your country as well as at the regional level, among media outlets, and with society at large. (A tip: Hyperlinks to UN resolutions can be created by adding the number of the resolution to the address undocs.org. For example: HRC resolution 33/2 would be http://undocs.org/A/HRC/RES/33/2)

Monitor its implementation at the national level, and advocate for governments to improve on their achievements. For example, you can send letters to your foreign ministry asking what measures have been taken to implement commitments expressed in resolutions - there is usually a person or department responsible for intergovernmental organisations - and/or to your country representation in the appropriate delegation to the UN in New York, Geneva or Paris (emails can be found on the websites of these UN bodies). To reinforce these actions, call for meetings with government representatives at the foreign ministry to discuss the resolution's implementation. In this process, you will find it useful to check whether your country has sponsored or co-sponsored any of the resolutions; the information is available at this link for the UNGA, and in the draft resolutions in the cases of HRC and UNESCO resolutions. For the resolutions mentioned in the timeline above, you can find the list of government co-sponsors at the end of this piece.

Share the results of your monitoring and follow-up activities with other civil society groups, and join efforts to strengthen the resolution's implementation.

Use any concrete recommendations in the resolutions to support specific advocacy actions and campaigns for the safety of journalists in your country or region.

Promote the use of recommendations in judicial processes and litigation.

• Contribute to implementation reports. Calls for contributions are made in advance by the OHCHR. Get updates by subscribing to the civil society newsletter here.

Advocate for the resolution's recommendations to be taken into account and used by other UN processes and mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the special mechanisms, and the treaty body recommendation.

Help to inform the community on the debates about resolutions. You can follow sessions in person and, for the UNGA and the HRC, via webcasts. You can also tweet about them and write articles. This is important, as you can share each country's positions and to what extent they are supporting the issue of the safety of journalists.


More resources and information:

UNGA website. (Resolutions and drafts can be located by UNGA session, in the section called “Documents”)
HRC website (Resolutions and drafts can be located by HRC session)
How to Follow up on UN Human Rights Recommendations. A Practical Guide for Civil Society
Prevent, Protect, Prosecute. Acting on UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2
Basic texts related to the safety of journalists


A timeline of key resolutions relating to journalist safety and impunity

Each resolution has managed to advance the issue of journalist safety and impunity in incremental but essential ways, as illustrated in the timeline below.

 
November 1997
UNESCO Resolution 29 on condemnation of violence against journalists

For the first time, the UNESCO General Conference requests that the Director General of UNESCO condemn the killing of journalists and "any other physical violence" against them, and puts in place a monitoring system by which UNESCO's Director General makes a statement every time a journalist is killed. Beginning in 2008, the Director General produces a biennial report on the killing of journalists and the progress of judicial inquiries. It is entitled "The Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity".

 
December 2006
UNSC Resolution 1738

This first ever resolution on this theme by the UNSC condemns attacks against journalists in situations of armed conflict and recalls that "journalists, media professionals and associated personnel" shall be considered civilians, and that these individuals and their media equipment cannot be considered legitimate targets. It requests that the UN Secretary General include a follow-up sub-item on the safety of journalists in his annual reports on the protection of civilians in armed conflict submitted to the UNSC.

 
September 2012
HRC Resolution 21/12 on the safety of journalists

The first HRC resolution on the safety of journalists calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for them, including through legislative measures, awareness-raising, monitoring and reporting, and dedicating necessary resources to investigate and prosecute attacks against them. It also encourages States to create protection programmes and invites further cooperation on the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. In 2013, a report on good practices put in place by States to promote the safety of journalists was prepared by the OHCHR as a follow-up.

 
December 2013
UNGA Resolution 68/163 on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity

The first resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, specifically, proclaims 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. It urges Member States to conduct impartial, speedy, and effective investigations, and to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice. Moreover, it invites UN bodies to create focal points for the implementation of the UN Plan of Action (in 2017, the UN Secretary General named a focal point on journalists' safety on his team to follow the issue more closely, and requested that UN bodies do the same). Follow-up reports are always published by the UNSG. The one for this resolution can be read here.

 
September 2014
HRC Resolution 27/5 on the safety of journalists

This resolution provides more concrete recommendations for combating impunity for attacks and violence against journalists, such as creating special investigative units or independent commissions, adopting specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution, training prosecutors and the judiciary, and establishing information-gathering, early warning and rapid response mechanisms. It also stresses the need for strategic cooperation among UN bodies and mechanisms, as well as the importance of addressing the issue of the safety of journalists in countries’ Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR). No implementation report was published.

 
December 2014
UNGA Resolution 69/185 on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity

All attacks and violence against journalists are unequivocally condemned in this resolution, which for the first time specifically includes torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and arbitrary detention, as well as intimidation and harassment. As in 2013, it urges States to do their utmost to prevent violence, threats and attacks, also by publicly and systematically condemning violence and attacks against journalists. A UNSG report to monitor its implementation was published in 2015.

 
December 2015
UNSC Resolution 2222

In this resolution, all parties involved in armed conflict are urged to respect the professional independence and rights of journalists and media professionals, and to take steps to ensure accountability for crimes committed against journalists working in these situations. The resolution also affirms that UN peacekeeping operations should report on specific acts of violence against journalists in situations of armed conflict.

 
December 2015
UNGA Resolution 70/162 on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity

This resolution includes a call upon States to ensure measures to combat terrorism and preserve national security, in compliance with international standards and without arbitrarily hindering the work and safety of journalists. The UNSG report on the implementation of this resolution was focused on the issue of violence against women.

 
September 2016
HRC Resolution 33/2 on the safety of journalists

Resolution 33/2 goes further than its predecessors, calling for more effective implementation of States' obligations, including through enforcement mechanisms to strengthen the safety of journalists at the country level. It also urges the immediate and unconditional release of journalists and media workers who have been arbitrarily arrested or detained, taken hostage, or who have become victims of enforced disappearances, and to pay special attention to the safety of journalists during election periods. It emphasizes the need for encryption and anonymity tools for journalists as well as the protection of journalistic sources. Moreover, for the first time, a resolution on the safety of journalists not only "acknowledges", but specifically condemns attacks against women journalists. The implementation report, this time focused on the effectiveness of UN mechanisms on the promotion of the safety of journalists, will be published in 2018.

 
November 2017
UNESCO Resolution on the safety of journalists

This resolution encourages States to establish national safety mechanisms within the framework of the UN Plan of Action on journalists' safety, to monitor indicator 16.10.1 (the number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months) in the context of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and to pay special attention to specific threats to the safety of women journalists.

For a breakdown of the States that cosponsored each resolution, click here.

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