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

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.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor on
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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.

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.

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