Despite US opposition, UN approves rights to privacy in the digital age

Despite US opposition, UN approves rights to privacy in the digital age

Summary: Despite last week's US-led opposition to the United Nations' "Rights To Privacy In The Digital Age," the resolution put forward as a reaction to US surveillance activities was passed.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The United Nations on Wednesday approved 18 draft resolutions, notably "The right to privacy in the digital age," despite opposition from the U.S. government

It is the first such document to establish privacy rights and human rights in the digital sphere.

Sponsored by Germany and Brazil, it is specifically concerned with the negative impact of surveillance, "in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights."

Brazil's representative said: "Through this resolution, the General Assembly establishes, for the first time, that human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium and therefore need to be protected both offline and online."

The draft was approved without a vote. 

According to The Guardian, the major concession made to the US, UK, and Australia was to include a reference linking "human rights violations" to extraterritorial snooping.

No countries moved against the measure, though last week the United States lobbied its fellow so-called "Five Eyes" nations of the UK, Australia and New Zealand to weaken the language of the resolution. 

A leaked copy of the US negotiating position prior to today's announcement revealed that the US does not feel that its surveillance activities and practices are illegal.

According to the AFP news agency, as a result of the US-led efforts, language stating that foreign spying would be a rights violation was weakened.

"The right to privacy in the digital age" will have the UN General Assembly "call upon Member States to review their procedures, practices and legislation on the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, with a view to upholding the right to privacy by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all relevant obligations under international human rights law."

According to the UN's General Assembly press release today: "Following the approval, some delegates stressed the need for agreed international human rights mechanisms in relation to ensuring privacy and freedom of expression. 

The statement added: "Some expressed regret over the lack of a specific reference to such mechanisms in the draft, while others applauded the consensus as a clear international reaction to the national and extraterritorial electronic surveillance activities conducted by the United States."

Sweden expressed disappointment regarding the outcome of the resolution's language regarding human rights. 

The representative of Sweden said he "would have preferred a reference" to the enjoyment of all human rights — online and offline — including the freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

The representative of the US suggested that information collection was linked to privacy saying, "seeking, receiving and imparting information were linked to the right to privacy."

According to the UN, "The representative of the United States said her country had long championed the right to privacy and to freedom of expression as pillars of democracy and reaffirmed the relevant human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

It added: "Privacy and freedom of expression should be promoted online and offline, she said, adding that seeking, receiving and imparting information were linked to the right to privacy."

Korea: US talk of democracy "hypocritical"

The representative of North Korea (DPRK) said the draft was timely and had been tabled in the appropriate forum.

The reclusive country's representative told the Committee that it was a reaction to "the massive electronic surveillance activities conducted by one country that had shocked public opinion."

He stressed that, "infringements of State sovereignty should no longer be tolerated," and, "massive espionage activities were targeting Heads of State, who were symbols of State sovereignty, resulting in rampant violations and interference in internal affairs."

Talk of democracy by the U.S. was "hypocritical," he said, saying that it should therefore abstain from talking about human rights violations in other countries, especially in light of its use of drones against civilians.

Resolution to strengthen human rights against drone use

The Committee next went onto vote and approve a resolution specifically aimed at the use of drones and human rights violations, with an urgent stress on the legalities of drone use.

Pakistan's representative told the Committee the use of drones against innocent civilians is a clear violation of international law, stressing that drone strikes were counterproductive in the fight against terrorism.

He called for an end to illegal drone strikes against his country’s territories, emphasizing that the use of armed drones against innocent civilians was a clear violation of international law.

The resolution regarding drones titled, "Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism," was also passed without a vote.

The international bloc of nations said in a statement: "By that text, the General Assembly would take note of the report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, which referred to the use of remotely piloted aircraft."

"The Assembly would also note the urgent and imperative need to seek agreement among Member States on legal questions pertaining to the use of remotely piloted aircraft," it added.

Passed: Resolution to protect journalists against intimidation and arbitrary detention

Next, the Committee passed a resolution to protect journalists worldwide, specifying that the arbitrary detention, harassment and intimidation of journalists would now be universally condemned — bringing to mind the UK's recent detention of David Miranda, partner to journalist Glenn Greenwald.

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The Committee approved "Safety of journalists and the issue of impunity" without a vote. 

The UN said: "By its terms, the General Assembly would condemn unequivocally all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, as well as intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations."

"It would also decide to proclaim 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists," it added.

The UN's document noted, "the representative of Qatar, noting that her delegation had co-sponsored the draft, stressed the critically important role of journalists and the need to safeguard their work."

By far, the most impressive piece of today's announcement is the passing of the UN's "Rights to privacy in the digital age."

It was created in a committee comprised of 193 member states and is the biggest demonstration against mass digital surveillance by the United States as revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

Topics: Security, Government, Government US

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  • Details, details

    A privacy resolution that North Korea could support! This I have to see.
    John L. Ries
    • Oh please....

      You don't (or shouldn't) gauge the usefulness of a thing or idea on how the whackos react to it. The Westboro Church is against child pornography, does that mean being against child pornography is somehow stupid?

      North Korea has a lot of gain from curtailed US surveillance, so of *course* they're in favour of it. But so does every other country like France and Germany. You have to take the bad with the good in things like this.
      • It's enough to raise suspicions

        North Korea is not a state with a record of respect for the privacy of ordinary citizens (quite the opposite). I'm guessing that the privacy of "dear leader" and other senior Communist Party officials is another matter.
        John L. Ries
    • RE: Details, details

      Not only that, the draft privacy resolutions aren't really applicable to North Korea anyway as most of its citizens don't have access to PCs and, therefore, aren't on the Internet.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • US does not feel that its surveillance activities and practices are illegal

    Funny, the Soviet Union thought that too...and China and Nazi Germany and and.
    The US unfortunately is following the wrong path. Too bad its citizens won't find out until too late.
  • American objection

    Liberty and justice for ALL. The Bill of Rights, under a united nation, should extend to every person in the world if it becomes united. To find that we should remain under division for the benefit of surveillance shows the true character of our leaders' values.
  • us govt out of touch with We The People

    "The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests"
    From the Port Huron statement of the Students for a Democratic Society 1962. printed in _Woodstock_ (Mike Evans, Paul Kingsbury).
    • Out of curiosity...

      ...with what would you replace it?

      Personally, while I would reduce the number of elected state and local offices (it's not helpful for there to be more elected officials than the average voter can be reasonably expected to keep track), I'd leave the federal structure mostly as it is. Changes that would be helpful would be reform (not abolition) of the Electoral College (I've long favored choosing electors by proportional representation instead if plurality), requiring members of Congress to be elected by majority vote (instead of plurality), a federal prohibition against gerrymandering of Congressional districts, and voting representation for the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives (other territories would be exempt from federal taxation).
      John L. Ries
      • It would also be helpful... set the size of the House of Representatives to the minimum necessary to insure that no combination of states with a majority of seats in the House would have less than a majority of the total population (the current size of 435 causes small states to be somewhat overrepresented).
        John L. Ries
        • and ban...

          ... all forms of political lobbying. With half the retiring federal politicians getting plum jobs with lobbyists or their clients. the system is fatally compromised...
          • Define "lobbying"

            And distinguish it from "petitioning" as the latter is protected political activity under the U.S. constitution.
            John L. Ries
          • A distinction that could be made

            It seems to me that there is no such thing as a secret or confidential petition. It would therefore make sense for all petitions to government officials or members of Congress to be made in writing after which they would be public record and subject to the FOIA.

            It might also be useful to bar campaign contributions from being delivered in person to the offices of elected officials.
            John L. Ries
          • Some reasonable lobbying rules

            1. Paid lobbyists would be barred from contributing to election campaigns of officials they lobby or their opponents or delivering or aggregating campaign contributions on behalf of others. They would also be barred from delivering "gifts" on behalf of their clients.

            2. Paid lobbyists would be required to report all contacts made on behalf of clients with public officials together with the name of the client, any proposals made, or any proposals opposed.

            3. If language proposed by a lobbyist is added to a proposed law or regulation (or proposed amendment thereto), the name of the lobbyist and the organization on whose behalf he was acting would be noted.

            None of the above would apply to unpaid volunteers.

            4. The persons responsible for preparing or circulating a written petition would be required to note the fact on the petition. If a corporation pays for any part of either, the name of the corporation, the state in which it is incorporated, and the name and business address of the authorizing officer(s) would be required to appear on the petition.
            John L. Ries
  • They are "us".

    Vote, or don't complain.