This week, Access joined a coalition letter to the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom sharply criticizing the government for spying on international human rights groups. The letter responded to revelations in a ruling by the government’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which disclosed that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had spied on organizations in South Africa and Egypt. The UK is a member of the so-called Five Eyes coalition of governments — including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that collaborates on intelligence gathering. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is the only body empowered to hear complaints about UK intelligence agencies.
To the Right Hon Philip Hammond MP, ?Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, ?Government of the United Kingdom
Re: Surveillance of human rights organisations
Dear Foreign Secretary,
We write to you to express our deep concern at the ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal on June 22, 2015, which reveals that GCHQ illegally carried out surveillance on two important and respected independent international human rights groups.
These two organisations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Legal Resource Centre in South Africa are well-known and widely-respected in the international human rights movement.
Though the Tribunal found technical violations in the surveillance process, our concern lies with the act of the surveillance in itself. If the role of surveillance is to protect the public from serious crime and threats to their security, a specific explanation surely needs to be provided for the surveillance of human rights groups — a practice, if carried out by other states, which would attract the criticism of the UK government.
Indeed in the FCO Human Rights and Democracy Annual Report of 2014 you, as Foreign Secretary, were quoted as saying “We call on governments around the world to do more to foster the role of civil society in promoting and defending human rights” — a role which the report warns is under threat by governments around the world squeezing the global “civil society space”.
Spying on civil society groups seems at odds with fostering the government’s role “in protecting and promoting human rights” as is later stated in the annual report, and further undermines the security of this space.
Two immediate questions arise from this judgment, the first of which concerns the rationale for placing human rights organisations under surveillance, which has yet to be provided. Secondly, it remains unclear at whose request this surveillance was authorised. We would appreciate an early answer to these questions.
We, the undersigned, endorse the above open letter to the UK Foreign Secretary regarding GCHQ’s surveillance of human rights groups.
Open Rights Group
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Global Partners Digital
Internet Rights and Principles Coalition
The World Wide Web Foundation
Association for Progressive Communications
Public Knowledge, USA
Bolo Bhi, Pakistan
Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), South Korea
Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communications (BNNRC), Bangladesh
ICT Watch, Indonesia
Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet)
Dataskydd.NET Sverige, Sweden
Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya)
Derechos Digitales, Chile
Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles (ADC)
Digital Defenders Partners, Ukraine
Global Geneva, Switzerland
Australian Privacy Foundation
Instituto Bem Estar Brasil
Internet Policy Observatory, Pakistan
Privacy and Access Council of Canada