Broad Civil Society Coalition Delivers Statement to UN HRC on Surveillance and Human Rights

Ella Cheng contributed to this post.

A broad civil society coalition of more than 90 civil society organizations and individuals issued a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) today calling for the protection of human rights in the digital age in the wake of the recently revealed PRISM and US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program. The statement, which was delivered at the 23rd session of the HRC, by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Reporters without Borders, in particular highlighted the need to protect the rights of whistleblowers and to prevent the establishment of a global internet surveillance system.

The civil society statement, which Access endorsed, expressed concerns about recent revelations of a far-reaching US government surveillance program on US and non-US nationals, which allows the US government to collect information such as call history and call length, and share that information with other governments. The members of civil society asserted that this program was “a blatant and systematic disregard for human rights” articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

UN Human Rights Council called on to act 

In light of the serious breach of human rights presented by blanket state surveillance and the failure of any government to address this issue, the joint civil society statement was critical in bringing this issue to the world’s predominant human rights body. The broad coalition asked the governments of the HRC to act swiftly to prevent the creation of a global internet-based surveillance system and suggested a three-part plan of action.

First, the HRC should convene a special session regarding internet surveillance.

Second, it should support a multistakeholder process to develop a new General Comment on Article 17 of the ICCPR, which outlines the right to privacy. A new General Comment would provide an authoritative legal interpretation of Article 17 on the right to privacy in light of technological advancements, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue.

Third, the joint statement requested that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights prepare a report compiling nations’ surveillance laws and practices in order to ensure accountability toward human rights standards, and examining the link between surveillance of communications and the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights, as articulated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which the HRC endorsed unanimously in 2011.

The statement also called for the protection of whistleblowers who expose such instances of international human rights violations, as they play a critical role in promoting transparency and upholding the human rights of all. This recommendation coincides with growing concern over the wellbeing of Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who admitted to leaking classified documents about the PRISM and NSA surveillance programs in a video interview with the Guardian on Sunday.

These goals aligned with recommendations in a 2013 report by La Rue, which suggested the revision of surveillance laws in order to conform with human rights standards. Read Access’ analysis of the report here.

The sharp divide between government rhetoric and practice

While La Rue’s report sparked a meaningful conversation about state surveillance last week in the HRC, the US programs that have come to light since then were surprisingly not the focus of governments in today’s debate. Tunisia introduced a cross-regional statement on behalf of 74 governments reaffirming last year’s landmark resolution 20/8.

The cross-regional statement maintained “that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression” and recognized the importance of the internet in generating “economic, social and cultural development,” encouraging governments to institute “as little restriction as possible to the flow of information on the internet” in order to reap the internet’s full benefits.

Today’s governmental statement, which was coordinated by Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States, correctly emphasized “that when addressing any security concerns on the Internet, this must be done in a manner consistent with states’ obligations under international human rights law and full respect for human rights must be maintained.” Yet the governments supporting this statement ignored the recent serious revelations about mass surveillance in the PRISM/NSA case. This should not come as a surprise given that the US was part of the core group of governments that drafted the statement.

While it is not uncommon for governments to willfully ignore the shortcomings of their human rights policies while issuing aspirational human rights declarations, contradictions between public statement and practice are compounded in the digital age, when one government’s policies have the potential to cross borders in ways previously unimaginable.

Appropriately, this debate took place in the midst of a discussion on implementing the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which reaffirmed the universality and interconnectedness of all human rights. As the world becomes ever more interconnected through new technology, greater attention to the promotion and protection of human rights in the digital environment is necessary.

Access will continue to work and collaborate with partners to advocate for the goals outlined in today’s joint statement, so that this critical issue is a key component of the UN’s human rights agenda.