Intelligence community refuses to follow treaty requirements on human rights

(March 14, 2016) — On behalf of the intelligence community, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has provided a non-response to a request from Access Now and civil society organizations to publicly establish a point of contact to field complaints about potential human rights violations as required by law. Executive Order 13107 requires U.S. federal agencies to accept complaints about human rights, but so far most agencies have failed to designate a contact person.

“This executive order was clearly meant to provide a means to address major deficits in the government’s treatment of human rights. It’s a shame that, nearly two decades after the executive order was published and a year after our request, intelligence agencies have still failed to provide a mechanism to receive and respond to human rights complaints,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now.

In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13107, requiring U.S. agencies to comply with international treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”). This legally binding order requires every federal agency to establish a single point of contact to, among other things, coordinate “complaints about violations of human rights obligations that fall within its area of responsibility.” In plain English, that means that government agencies must set up a mechanism enabling people — regardless of nationality — to file complaints about abuses of human rights. The order also mandates that those who file these complaints must receive a response, and that all non-trivial complaints must be reviewed annually. Unfortunately, most agencies have failed to fulfill this legal obligation.

In March 2015, Access Now and several civil society organizations asked members of the U.S. intelligence community, including the ODNI as well as the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency, to publish a contact point for complaints. The request was renewed in November, specifically referencing the invalidation of the E.U.-U.S. “Safe Harbor” framework by the Court of Justice by the European Union, which broadly criticized U.S. surveillance practices.

While Access Now appreciates the information provided and the ODNI’s continued engagement at the United Nations, this response fails to either respond to or deny our request to the intelligence community to specifically accept human rights complaints.

“The United States has failed to respect the human rights of non-U.S. persons for far too long. We will continue to fight in any forum available for these agencies to comply with international law,” added  Amie Stepanovich, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now.

“Openness and transparency are cornerstones to any meaningful democracy. It is self-evident that there needs to be a single point of contact to whom questions of human rights abuses can be submitted. Failure to address this is both undemocratic and undermines the very principles the U.S. holds others to adhere to,”  said Guðjón Idir, Executive Director of the International Modern Media Initiative (IMMI).

“Executive Order 13107 has a requirement for intelligence agencies to establish a point of contact for human rights complaints. Failure to do so indicates that agencies are systematically preventing an infrastructure for any accountability,” said Yolanda Rondon, staff attorney at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“Human rights treaties are the law of the land, and should be complied with by all branches of the government — including the agencies that are carrying out mass surveillance,” said Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project (PapersPlease.org).

Access Now plans to appeal this response and will continue to fight for human rights protections for all users. A version of the letter was also sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has yet to reply.