UN Human Rights Council discusses surveillance and other internet issues at 24th session

The 24th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) opened last Monday, with internet-related human rights issues highlighted as areas of concern repeatedly by governments, civil society, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. With the international community still reeling from the revelations of mass surveillance sparked by Edward Snowden’s leaks, much of the discussion of internet issues focused on how to protect human rights, in particular privacy, in the digital age.

State surveillance – a hot button issue

The High Commissioner stimulated debate of the issue with her opening remarks, in which she noted the threat that mass surveillance poses to human rights as among the most pressing global human rights situations today. Several states welcomed and built on her remarks, including influential political blocs like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

A number of governments expressed outrage at the alleged “unjustified, unauthorized, or even criminal” surveillance regimes of states. Many cited the landmark report of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue, which explored the impact of mass state surveillance on human rights. The report warned that human rights standards have fallen behind rapid advances in surveillance technology and argued that states have an obligation to “revise national laws regulating [surveillance] in line with human rights standards.”

Germany’s intervention on behalf of Austria, Hungary, Lichenstein, Norway, and Switzerland made a strong case for the need to effectively safeguard the right to privacy in view of rapid technological advances and invited the Council to address this question.

Likewise, Brazil argued that state surveillance is directly at “the heart of our mandate” and made a compelling call for a response from the HRC to “embrace its responsibility and bring a credible response to this issue, in line with international human rights law.”

Pakistan, speaking on behalf of Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ecuador, Russia, Indonesia, Bolivia, Iran, and China, highlighted the need to protect the right to privacy as an essential element of free expression, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and La Rue’s report. The statement explicitly criticized the role of major international internet and telecommunication technology companies in violating privacy. It also explicitly made the links between the allegations of mass state surveillance and the need for reforming global internet governance. To quote the statement directly:

The existing mechanisms like the Internet Governance Forum established under paragraph 72 of the World Summit on Information Society- Tunis Agenda have not been able to deliver the desired results. A strategic rethinking of the global internet governance mechanism is inevitable. Further development of an international mechanism in the context of ‘Enhanced cooperation’ within the WSIS Tunis Agenda can be a concrete way forward. However we will need to be sincere in our efforts to ensure a transparent, free, fair and respectful international intergovernmental mechanism of internet governance and one that also ensures the right to privacy. 

While this is not an exhaustive account of governments’ positions on surveillance at HRC24, these examples are indicative of the political climate around this controversial issue. For example, Germany, has taken a particulalry strong public stance against allegations of mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency, which has become an election issue for the Merkel government. Even before it was revealed that the U.S. was spying on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian government pledged to bring this issue to the HRC due to domestic outrage over alleagations of NSA spying. Additionally, Iran, China, Russia, and other governments have been promoting the idea of a global intergovernmental internet governance mechanism at other global venues, so it should not come as a surrpise that they would use the opportunity to advance this idea at the Council. But other than Brazil, these governments have not been part of the core group on internet issues at the HRC, so it is not clear how likely it is that these statements will lead to action at the Council.

A civil society voice on internet issues at HRC24

A number of NGOs submitted written statements to HRC24 on the impact of state surveillance on human rights. Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), together with Access, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Privacy International submitted a joint statement highlighting the need to bring state surveillance frameworks in line with international human rights norms.

The statement called on the HRC to reaffirm its commitment to promoting the right to privacy in light of evolving technologies and establish a framework for national guidelines similar to the Council-endorsed UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (A/HRC/RES/17/4) by which surveillance activities of each State can be regularly reviewed and assessed. It pointed the HRC to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which will be formally launched on Friday, in an event co-organized with the missions of Norway and Germany, with remarks from the High Commissioner Navi Pillay and Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue.

Amnesty International also submitted a written statement on impact of surveillance on human rights, as did a group of 14 South Korean NGOs though the Korean Progressive Network ‘Jinbonet.’ These efforts build on the joint civil society statement at the last session of the Human Rights Council (HRC23) in the aftermath of revelations of the NSA’s PRISM program. The statement, which attracted support of over 300 human rights organizations and individuals, called for means to ensure more systematic attention by the UN to internet related human rights violations.

Safety of journalists and other internet-related issues

While governments and civil society are certainly looking to the Council to address the surveillance scandal, HRC24 is also considering other internet-related aspects of human rights. For example, the High Commissioner presented her report on the safety of journalists, which contains an overview of the situation facing journalists and identifies good practices that could assist in creating a safe and enabling environment in which journalists are able to freely exercise their profession. The report highlighted the attacks that online journalists face, ”such as illegal hacking of their accounts, monitoring of their online activities, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the blocking of websites that contain information critical of the authorities.”

Austria, with the support of 72 co-sponsors, proposed a draft decision on a panel on the safety of journalists for the 27th session of the HRC. Reporters Sans Frontiers made an oral intervention today, which called on States to extend international obligations afforded to journalists to non-professional news providers both online and offline. RSF also recommended that the issue of surveillance technologies and online security be introduced in the debate on the safety of journalists, and highlighted the next challenge the Council must face concerning the protection of whistleblowers. The mission of Ecuador will also host a side event on Freedom of Information and the Protection of Whistle-blowers with Act in the Public Interest on Tuesday.

It is expected that there will be a resolution this session on freedom of association and a second on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, which may include internet-related human rights issues.

Later this week the HRC will consider the final Universal Periodic Review recommendations and reports of 11 countries. The full examination of these countries’ human rights performance took place earlier this year. Internet-related issues were raised in the reviews of Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, Cameroon, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan with online freedom of expression and hate speech the dominant human rights issues.

A brief history of internet isseus at the HRC

Since 2008 internet related human rights issues have been increasingly raised in the Council. Consideration began in earnest with the 2011 report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, which focused on the internet. Since then the UN Special Procedures have been leading the examination of internet related human rights issues including the special rapporteurs on Freedom of Association, Cultural Rights, Racism, Racial Discrimination and Intolerance, and Xenophobia, and with a UN Panel Discussion on women’s human rights defenders.

In July 2012, 85 countries supported the Swedish-led resolution (A/HRC/RES/20/8) affirming the simple proposition that the same human rights we have offline apply online and putting internet-related human rights issues squarely within the HRC’s mandate. As the HRC considers appropriate responses to the pressing surveillance issue, it is important that it takes a principled, not political response, and that it builds on this brief, but valuable history.

For more information, see Access and APC’s brief on internet-related human rights issues at the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. See http://webtv.un.org/ for livestreaming and archived meetings of HRC24 and follow #HRC24 on Twitter.