A Week On The Right To Privacy At The UN In Geneva

News & Analysis
A week on the right to privacy at the UN in Geneva

This week will see the right to privacy take center stage at the UN in Geneva.

The UN Special rapporteur on the right to privacy will present his first report to the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday 9 March. Meanwhile the Human Rights Committee will review the records of surveillance and the right to privacy of South Africa and Sweden among others.


The new Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy

A year ago the Human Rights Council established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, filling a gap in international human rights protection.

When establishing this mandate, the Council expressed deep concerns at the negative impact that state surveillance may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights, most notably the right to privacy.

Regretfully, governments around the world are rushing to adopt new laws that give wider surveillance powers to state security agencies beyond what is permitted under existing human rights standards. In our written statement to the Council, we have highlighted some of these laws, from China, France, Kenya, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Often framed as responses to terrorist threats, these surveillance laws support an approach to security and counter-terrorism that treats the privacy of individuals as an impediment to the pursuit of vaguely defined national security aims — wrongly arguing that we can have either security or privacy, but not both. This approach risks widening the gap between States’ legal and technological capabilities and the applicable international human rights standards.

On Wednesday 9 March, states and civil society will have the first opportunity to engage in an inter-active dialogue with the Special Rapporteur.


Human Rights Committee

The same week that the Council will consider, among others, the report of the UN Special Rapporteur, the Human Rights Committee is also meeting in Geneva.

During this session, the Committee — a body of 18 independent experts established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, -will consider the human rights record of South Africa, Namibia, Sweden, New Zealand, Slovenia, Costa Rica and Rwanda.

In recent years, the Human Rights Committee put surveillance laws and practices in a range of countries under close scrutiny, making key recommendations to remedy violations of the right to privacy, particularly in the context of communications surveillance.

For this session, Privacy International, together with other non-governmental organisations, submitted written briefings on South Africa, Sweden, New Zealand and Rwanda.

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Only a couple of years ago, this level of attention on the right to privacy by the main UN human rights mechanisms would have been unthinkable.

As affirmed by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council, international human rights law provides a clear and universal framework to respect and protect the right to privacy, including in the context of modern communications surveillance. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN special rapporteurs and the Human Rights Committee have already demonstrated how existing standards can be interpreted to address some of the challenges posed by modern communications surveillance. And civil society organisations have developed, based on the existing standards and jurisprudence, the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

To close the gap between existing human rights standards and surveillance laws and practices that infringe upon the right to privacy, Privacy International believes that UN human rights experts and the Council need to continue to systematically monitor and assess states’ laws, policies and practices, report on violations and develop specific recommendations.