New UN General Comment 
on Freedom of Expression

Adam Fletcher
Human Rights

On 21 July 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee formally adopted its 34th General Comment, replacing General Comment 10 (1983) on the right to freedom of expression.

The Committee called the right to freedom of expression, as protected by article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’), ‘one of the most challenged and sensitive topics in international human rights law.’

The new General Comment addresses the legality of restrictions, including blasphemy laws, ‘memory’ laws, laws on such matters as treason, counter-terrorism, lese majeste, desacato, defamation of the head of state and the protection of honour of public officials. The General Comment also clearly confirms the extension of freedom of expression protections to new media actors, including bloggers.

The Committee explained that the new General Comment was issued after calls from numerous actors, including not just human rights lawyers, government policy-makers and judges but also journalists and other concerned people with a public voice.

Michael O’Flaherty, Committee Member and Professor at the University of Nottingham, explained that the General Comment ‘is a strong reaffirmation of the central importance for all human rights of the freedom of expression and sets out the very strict parameters within which the right can be restricted by states’.

The General Comment explains how freedom of expression is critical to the enjoyment of other human rights including the right of political participation. It also discusses the reference to the responsibilities of those seeking to assert their freedom of expression in article 19(3) of the Covenant. It asserts that only precisely-defined threats which are directly attributable to an improper exercise of the freedom may justify government restrictions.

General Comment 34, along with all of the Committee’s other General Comments, can be found at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/comments.htm.

ADAM FLETCHER is the Manager, Accountability Project, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.

(2011) 36(3) AltLJ 202
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