European Ombudsman surveillance

European Ombudsman responds to NGOs’ complaint, investigates EU’s facilitation of Africa’s surveillance network

Update: Access Now, Privacy International, Sea-Watch, BVMN, Homo Digitalis, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) received a decision from the European Ombudsman on  Friday, November 17, 2023, calling for the European External Action Service (EEAS) to strengthen transparency, accountability, and human rights considerations in EU Civilian Missions. Access Now welcomes this decision to ensure that people are protected against surveillance tools and continues to call on the European Union to safeguard the rights of at-risk people in non-EU countries it collaborates with.

In a win that elevates human rights over government spying, the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has opened an investigation into the European Commission’s support for African countries to develop surveillance capabilities.

“With little regard for the real-life consequences that surveillance technology poses to human rights, the EU has funded and supported unregulated, state-sponsored surveillance across Africa,” said Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy Manager at Access Now. “We welcome the European Ombudsman’s investigation into these confounding arrangements, and will continue to direct the public’s eye towards government-support of the global surveillance industry.”  

The investigation, opened on November 30, comes in response to a complaint filed by Access Now, Privacy International, Sea-Watch, BVMN, Homo Digitalis, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) calling for an inquiry into the EU’s financial and logistical support of intelligence gathering and surveillance, as well as wiretapping tech and biometric ID systems to non-EU intelligence and security agencies as part of migration control and surveillance programs.

“The evidence we have compiled over the past few years draws a detailed picture of how, through the European Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the EU has been using aid funds to finance surveillance capabilities to African states as part of its alleged response to migration,” said Ilia Siatitsa, Programme Director and Acting Legal Director at Privacy International. “When we asked basic questions to the European Commission regarding the potential impact of their practices on human rights and what steps they are taking to mitigate the risks, they were reluctant to respond. We are looking forward to seeing what their response to the Ombudsman will be.”

The Ombudsman is specifically investigating the Commission’s activity within the context of its EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), a programme that works on issues of forced displacement and irregular migration. In her letter to the European Commission, she questioned:

  1. Whether the Commission carried out any kind of human rights risk or impact assessments prior to engaging in activities that support non-EU countries in developing surveillance capabilities under the EUTF, and if not, why such assessments would be considered neither appropriate nor necessary; and
  2. What measures the Commission put in place to protect human rights in the projects implemented under the EUTF.