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UN Committee Adopts Resolution Against Mass Internet Surveillance

The United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee unanimously adopted a resolution on November 26 reaffirming privacy as a human right and that it is an integral aspect in individuals exercising their freedom of expression. Although the resolution has largely symbolic value, the United States and its allies successfully lobbied to delete a clause in an earlier draft stating that mass surveillance is a violation of human rights.    

The resolution, sponsored by Brazil and Germany, would extend to all people the right to privacy and to protect them from unlawful surveillance. Earlier this year, documents collected by Edward Snowden revealed that US’s National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on the communications of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel among millions of others, when trawling for electronic communication data from phone records and the and internet.
“Brazil’s Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said the resolution ‘establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium, and therefore need to be protected online and offline,'” said an Associated Press (AP) report on the resolution.
AP said the unanimous adoption of the resolution in the 50-member Third Committee (Social Humanitarian and Cultural Rights) meant that it would also pass the 193-member UN General Assembly. However, UNGA “resolutions aren’t legally binding but reflect world opinion and carry political weight,” AP said.
But unanimity in the Committee was achieved only after the US, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand comprising the ‘five eyes’ network that share intelligence, succeeded in diluting the resolution by lobbying to delete a clause stating that mass interception and collection of personal data constituted a human rights violation.
“[w]e must note that the resolution was weakened by the United States and its allies who stripped out a sentence that explicitly defined mass surveillance as a violation of human rights. The US also tried (and failed) to remove any suggestion that privacy protestions apply extraterritorially. The final text of the draft resolution noted that states have only ‘deep concerns’ with the ‘negative impacts’ of surveillance and collection of personal data, at home and abroad, when carried out on a mass scale,” said the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that studies digital censorship.
EFF also said “[t]he draft resolution is important in restating an already accepted international legal principle: states must comply with their own commitments under human rights law when exercising their power outside their borders. In other words, if a state is conducting extraterritorial surveillance it remains bound to upholding the right to privacy for everyone.”
The resolution also establishes the principle that privacy is essential for the right to the freedom of expression. EFF quoted UN Special Rapporteur of the Freedom of Expression Frank LaRue’s report that says, “Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas…. An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”
To read the Resolution click here

Surveillance Should be Necessary and Proportionate, Say Rights Monitors

Over 100 human rights and freedom of expression monitors worldwide, have signed the ‘International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance,’ which brings together principles governing the relationship between human rights – especially the right to information – and surveillance laws in the age of digital communications.
The document, developed by Access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International, “attempts to explain how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques,” says the Preamble.