(Photo: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Daniel Baer with Internet Freedom Fellows from India, Burkina Faso, Syria, Venezuela taken at the State Department after a meeting. The Freedom Fellows met with Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe as well. Please see below for her remarks.)
At the Human Rights Council (HRC), the United States has consistently placed special emphasis on the protection and promotion of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, because we understand that these fundamental freedoms are essential to facilitating the exercise of other universal rights.
As activity in the economic, social, and the political realms gravitates from the offline world to the online world, we have an additional responsibility to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are not eroded simply because they are being exercised in the digital realm. The United States is committed to the principle that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected in the online world.
Last week, I had the chance to spend time with the Internet Freedom Fellows, six young human rights activists, each of whom is working in his or her own way to promote and defend freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and all other human rights on the Internet. The Internet Freedom Fellows (IFF) program is funded by the State Department’s Innovation Fund and the U.S. Mission in Geneva, and was designed to follow up on Secretary Clinton’s pledge to find innovative ways to promote the use of the Internet in support of human rights. The 2012 Fellows are: Dlshad Othman (Syria), Pranesh Prakash (India), Koundjoro Gabriel Kambou (Burkina Faso), Sopheap Chak (Cambodia), Andres Azpurua (Venezuela), and Emin Milli (Azerbaijan).
The fellows’ visit to Geneva coincided with a moment when the Human Rights Council is seized with these issues: The United States and a cross regional group of countries consisting of Brazil, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Turkey have joined with Sweden to present a resolution on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet. If adopted later this session, this landmark text will mark the first time the Council has substantively addressed the issue of human rights online in a resolution.
As the global community has watched during the past 18 months, individuals across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond have taken to both physical town squares and virtual spaces to express their legitimate aspirations and demand democracy. The Internet has become an essential medium through which journalists, activists, and citizens connect and share information in ways that are changing their societies.
One of this year’s fellows is Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist and IT engineer who has put his own life in danger to assist his fellow Syrian citizen journalists. Sitting next to me at a UN press conference, Dlshad explained how he helps provide Syrians with digital security resources so that they can communicate online freely and securely despite Assad’s “electronic army,” with its active online censorship and surveillance. Although he cannot currently return to his country, Dlshad is focused on making it possible for the world to hear the voices of people inside Syria. “This is actually the only way that we have at this time, since there isn’t any media on the ground.”
As the Representative of the United States to the Human Rights Council, I am inspired by these fellows and the courage they’ve displayed in using the digital realm to advocate for the human rights of their fellow citizens. I will recall their stories and experiences as I work to promote these fundamental freedoms in the Human Rights Council.