International organizations pressure Congress to respect human rights

Deborah Brown contributed to this post. 

Today Access, in coordination with a broad-based group of civil society organizations and individuals, sent a letter to the US Congress representing the international response to the massive National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program. Amidst the often US-centric response to this scandal, the letter presents an important reminder that these programs not only affect, but specifically target, non-US citizens in a gross breach of the United States’ responsibilities under international human rights law.

Much of the response to the recently revealed NSA surveillance scandal has been focused on the rights of American citizens. The Obama administration has assured the public that only foreign data is targeted, representatives in Congress have proposed legislation “to prevent the mass collection of records of innocent Americans,” and the global petition StopWatching.Us, developed by a coalition of civil society organizations, including Access, primarily appeals to Congress on the basis of US citizens’ constitutional rights.

Yet the surveillance programs have broad international implications. The basic human rights of people around the world have likely been violated as the NSA has engaged in wide scale data collection of personal information. In a hearing today before congress, General Alexander, Director of the NSA, repeatedly stated that that while the NSA does collect the content of emails and phone calls, they only “target non-US persons who are located outside of the United States.” And as the civil society letter importantly notes, this data has likely been shared with other governments.

In response to this, organizations around the globe that “work towards the promotion of human rights on the internet” have come together to express international concern through a letter addressed to Congress. The letter is signed by organizations from more than 30 countries, representing six continents, and is translated into French, Spanish, and Korean. The coalition was organized through Best Bits, a global network of civil society organizations that focus on internet governance.

In the letter, the signatories remind members of congress of their responsibilities to those around the globe under international human rights norms and conventions, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the US is a signatory. The letter reminds Congress that, “The situation of a citizen unable to communicate private thoughts without surveillance by a foreign state not only violates the rights to privacy and human dignity, but also threatens the fundamental rights to freedom of thought, opinion and expression, and association.”

The threat posed by broad-scale surveillance programs to human rights was recently highlighted in a report released by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection to the right of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue. La Rue posits that new developments in communication technologies and surveillance severely compromise individuals’ privacy, and that, “States cannot ensure that individuals are able to freely seek and receive information or express themselves without respecting, protecting and promoting their right to privacy.”

A joint statement on the NSA case was also made last Monday at the UN Human Rights Council. This statement, which was supported by over 300 organizations, urged the body to examine the implications of government surveillance on human rights and recommend corrective steps that governments will need to take to meet human rights standards.

The United States’ hypocrisy regarding internet surveillance was also pointed out in the letter, which noted that the US recently helped draft a statement at the Human Rights Council stressing the importance of operating on the internet “in a manner consistent with states’ obligations under international human rights law.”

The letter concludes by pressing the Obama administration and Congress to dismantle these damaging programs, allow companies to publish the number of FISA requests received, and protect whistleblowers. The signatories stress the importance of international human rights laws and the responsibilities the US government has under them to those who fall outside the scope of its constitution. While these surveillance programs seemingly present serious problems regarding domestic law and the government’s responsibilities to its own citizens, this letter reminds us that the government of the United States still has a responsibility to those beyond its borders.

Read the full text of the letter here.