A study by the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, or IHRLC, and the Gulf Center for Human Rights identified a growing trend in the violation of freedom of expression online and the use of surveillance technology against human rights defenders, or HRDs, in Gulf regions and neighboring countries.

The report analyzes how national laws, including laws against cybercrime and terrorism, 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 United Arab Emirates.

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

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

The report highlights the fact that governments 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 as a really frightening trend of transnational cooperation where states crack down on activists when they are inside the countries they criticize,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, clinical lecturer at IHRLC . “They cross their territorial borders to target activists outside and bring them into the country to punish them within their territorial jurisdiction.”

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

Michael Khambatta, Geneva representative of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, said the report is a useful tool for everyday human rights advocacy.

Khambatta added that he planned to use the report as a benchmark on human rights resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2022.

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

For example, in 2004, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia approved the United Arab Emirates’ model cybercrime bill, the report says.

United Arab Emirates-drafted model law criminalizes online content ‘contrary to public order and morals’, which has dramatically expanded the ability of governments to criminalize online views they disapprove of, report says . The legislation was adopted by the United Arab Emirates in 2006 and has been replicated and referenced in other states near the region.

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

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

Pokharel said that in many cases the internet has “great potential for advocacy, organization and rallying” in areas where in-person advocacy is suppressed. However, this report shows how states have used the internet as a means to monitor and punish HRDs instead.

Some UN special rapporteurs have called for more control over surveillance technology, according to Khambatta.

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

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

For example, Steele explained how a former National Security Agency employee helped set up the surveillance used to target HRDs in the UAE.

Pokharel noted that the United States should consider the knowledge and expertise transferred and used in other regions.

“(The recommendations for the United States include) definitive consideration of the role of the United States in the region and often its role in perpetuating harm in the region,” Steele said.

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