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25 Nov, 2013

Watchdog NGOs urge adoption of UN resolution against unlawful surveillance


Nov 22, 2013 [University of Pittsburgh Law School, JURIST] – Five human rights groups urged the UN General Assembly on Thursday to adopt a resolution protecting the right of privacy against unlawful surveillance. In a letter to the assembly, the groups, Amnesty International, Access, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Privacy International and Human Rights Watch, claimed that “indiscriminate mass surveillance” infringes on the rights of private citizens and undermines the “social contract we all have with the State.”

The letter noted that the resolution’s adoption would be the first major statement by the UN on the issue of privacy in the last 25 years. The resolution was introduced and co-sponsored by Brazil and Germany, and despite reports of dilution of terms at the request of the US, the final draft of the resolution retained provisions declaring that a right to privacy is equally protective regardless of citizenship. Opposition to the resolution reportedly came primarily from the United States, Britain and Australia. The resolution is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, but unless a member state requests a vote it will pass automatically by consensus.

The focus on protection against surveillance comes largely as a result of revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who allegedly leaked classified documents earlier this year exposing the scope and breadth of NSA surveillance activities. One of the first challenges to NSA activities came in June, when the ACLU filed suit against them in federal court just days after Snowden claimed responsibility for the leaks. As the outcry over the revelations began to expand in scope and severity, several other human rights groups decided to sue as well.

The following month both the EFF and the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed suit alleging similar claims, on the behalf of a coalition of nineteen separate organizations. In August, the UN announced that it would be inquiring into United States surveillance activities, specifically reports indicating the NSA had hacked internal UN communications. EU officials expressed concern in October that NSA surveillance could have a counterintuitive impact on the fight against terrorism, due to the increased distrust of the US in light of the revelations.

On November 1, Brazil and Germany proposed their draft resolution on the issue to the General Assembly, which does not specifically target any nation but rather seeks to increase protections against any unreasonable surveillance, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or the targets.

Full text of the letter

November 20, 2013

To All Member States of the United Nations General Assembly

Dear Ambassador,

The right to privacy is central to who we are as humans and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It protects us from unwarranted intrusions into our daily lives, allows us to speak freely without fear of retribution, and helps keep our personal information, including health records, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and familial histories, safe. Indiscriminate mass surveillance, which tramples individuals’ right to privacy and undermines the social contract we all have with the State, must come to end immediately.

That is why we welcome efforts at the United Nations to adopt a resolution on “The right to privacy in the digital age.” Should it be adopted, the resolution, introduced by Brazil and Germany, would be the first major statement by the UN on privacy in 25 years. A strong resolution would crucially reiterate the importance of protecting privacy and free expression in the face of technological advancements and encroaching State power. It would also build on the strong stance taken by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, in recent months, as well as the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, an initiative supported by 300 organizations from around the world.

As negotiations continue on this draft resolution, we are deeply concerned that the countries representing the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance—the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom—have sought to weaken the resolution at the risk of undercutting their own longstanding public commitment to privacy and free expression. In discussion of the draft resolution, we urge these countries and the entire General Assembly to protect the right to privacy and take into account these basic points:

Privacy is intrinsically linked to freedom of expression and many other rights:

  • The mere existence of domestic legislation is not all that is required to make surveillance lawful under international law;
  • Indiscriminate mass surveillance is never legitimate as intrusions on privacy must always be genuinely necessary and proportionate;
  • When States conduct extraterritorial surveillance, thereby exerting control over the privacy and rights of persons, they have obligations to respect privacy and related rights beyond the limits of their own borders;
  • Privacy is also interfered with even when metadata and other third party communications are intercepted and collected.

We call upon all States meeting at the UN General Assembly this week to take a stand against indiscriminate mass surveillance, interception and data collection, both at home and abroad; to support the draft resolution, and to uphold the right of all individuals to use information and communication technologies such as the internet without fear of unwarranted interference.

This is a critical moment for the protection of privacy around the world.

Amnesty International
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Privacy International