UNITED NATIONS — A U.N. General Assembly committee on Tuesday called for an end to excessive electronic surveillance and expressed concern at the harm such scrutiny, including spying in foreign states and the mass collection of personal data, may have on human rights.
The U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues, adopted the German and Brazilian-drafted resolution by consensus. It is expected to be put to a vote in the 193-member General Assembly next month.
“For the first time in the framework of the United Nations this resolution unequivocally states that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online,” German U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig told the committee.
The United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - known as the Five Eyes surveillance alliance - supported the draft resolution after language that had initially suggested foreign spying could be a human rights violation was weakened to appease them.
The draft text does not name specific countries but comes after former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released details this year of a global spying program by the NSA, sparking international outrage.
“We firmly believe that privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression must be respected both online and offline,” U.S. delegate Elizabeth Cousens told the committee after the draft resolution was adopted.
Cousens said it was imperative that human rights and civil society activists be able to use the Internet freely and without fear of reprisal to protect “dignity, fight against repression, and hold governments, including mine, accountable.”
General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, unlike resolutions of the 15-nation Security Council. But assembly resolutions that enjoy broad international support can carry significant moral and political weight.
The draft resolution notes “that while concerns about public security may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information, States must ensure full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law.”
Privacy 'pivotal' to democracy
It calls on states to review procedures, practices and legislation on communications surveillance and “to establish or maintain existing independent, effective domestic oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency, as appropriate, and accountability for State surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data.”
It also asks U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay to present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and the interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.
“Human right to privacy is pivotal to any democratic society,” Brazil's U.N. ambassador, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, told the committee. “Full participation in democracy implies full protection of individual liberties, including the right to privacy in the digital age.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both condemned the widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency. The NSA is accused of accessing tens of thousands of French phone records and monitoring phone calls by Merkel and Rousseff.
A North Korean U.N. delegate said spying on heads of state was “a rampant violation of sovereignty and it is interference into the internal affairs, it is an insult, very unbearable.”
North Korea, one of the world's most reclusive and repressive nations accused of starving and torturing thousands of people in a network of prison camps, was one of dozens of co-sponsors of the draft resolution.
A Canadian U.N. delegate told the committee that the distinction in the draft resolution between regular surveillance and spying on a mass-scale was “beside the point.”
“When governments use surveillance to crack down on religious minorities or their political activists, that harass, detain, torture or even kill those targeted, it is not an issue of scale but of a deplorable practice ... that warrants the condemnation of the international community,” he said.