UN Secretary-General joins growing international concern over surveillance and human rights

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has joined the chorus of international leaders reaffirming the need to protect human rights in the face of mass surveillance.

Yesterday in the Annual Leiden Freedom Lecture, Ban voiced his strong concern over the threat that surveillance poses to human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to privacy. Ban also spoke out in defense of whistleblowers, noting that “those disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights need to be protected.”

His remarks on surveillance are worth quoting in full below:

Let me be clear. Concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify exceptional and narrowly-tailored use of surveillance.

But surveillance without safeguards to protect the right to privacy hampers fundamental freedoms.

People should feel secure in the knowledge that their private communications are not being unduly or unjustly scrutinised by the State.

Those disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights need to be protected.

Although some in power might claim they need to curtail freedoms to preserve order, this in fact could have the opposite effect.

Ban’s remarks echo a strong statement made last month by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who went further to recognize the close linkage between the right to privacy and the rights to access to information and freedom of expression and association. Emphasizing the exceptional and narrowly-tailored conditions under which lawful surveillance can occur, Pillay noted “surveillance without adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy actually risk impacting negatively on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Pillay also urged governments to respect the right to protection and asylum of individuals revealing human rights violations, drawing particular attention to the case of Edward Snowden.

While what the world’s top ranking diplomat and human rights authority say can be influential, they do not provide the specifics regarding how governments should bring surveillance policies in line with international human rights norms. For that guidance, it is useful to look to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue. Earlier this year La Rue issued a report analyzing the implications of State surveillance of communications on the exercise of the human rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.

With his report, La Rue specifically expressed concern about the extraterritorial application of surveillance practices with respect to U.S. policy. He recommends that States update and strengthen laws and legal standards; facilitate private, secure, and anonymous communications; increase public access to information, understanding and awareness of threats to privacy; regulate the commercialization of surveillance technology; and further the assessment of relevant international human rights obligations.

The International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, which have been endorsed by over 200 civil society organizations globally, also provide a framework to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights.

Some regional initiatives, including from governments themselves, are underway to address this issue. For example MERCOSUR, a Latin American diplomatic and economic alliance, held an emergency meeting to discuss the mass surveillance of their citizens by the US government. A collection of activists, academics, and NGOs from Latin America, many of which are from the MERCOSUR countries, wrote an open letter supporting all efforts to discuss dragnet surveillance and inviting leaders to consult with civil society in building human rights-protective policies for the region.

As Renata Avila writes for Global Voices Advocacy, MERCOSUR leaders rejected the interception of communications, characterizing it as a violation of human rights, the right to privacy, and the right to information, a position that they later took to the UN Security Council.

However, it is important to recognize, as Joana Varon and Ramiro Ugarte do in their recent article on the impact of NSA surveillance revelations in the Latin American and Caribbean region, that there is a “dissonance between Latin American leaders’ reactions to the Snowden case and their governments’ practices regarding the respect and protection of privacy within their own borders.”

Meanwhile in Europe, a resolution was tabled last month in the Council of Europe that calls on member states to regulate and effectively oversee the secret services and special procedures and to pass legislative provisions at the national level to protect whistleblowers. The resolution also calls upon the Secretary General to launch an inquiry under Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Just today, Reporters without Borders led a group of international NGOs, including Access, in issuing a statement urging the Parliamentary Assembly to support the resolution.

The struggle to bring surveillance laws and practices in line with human rights standards will necessarily be a long and hard fought one. However, this makes it all the more encouraging to see global leaders like Secretary-General Ban take a principled position in support of human rights, which can and should be leveraged for change at the national, regional, and global levels.