A United Nations rights committee on Tuesday passed a “right to privacy” resolution pressed by Germany and Brazil, who have led international outrage over reports of US spying on their leaders.
The resolution says that surveillance and data interception by governments and companies “may violate or abuse human rights.”
Fifty-five countries, including France, Russia and North Korea, co-sponsored the text, which did not name any target but made lightly veiled references to spying, which has put the US National Security Agency at the center of global controversy.
Brazil and Germany launched the initiative after reports leaked by former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden that the NSA had listened in to the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the office communications of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff.
Germany’s UN ambassador Peter Wittig said it was the first time a UN body has taken a stand on “online” human rights and the resolution sent an important “political message.”
The resolution “emphasizes that unlawful and arbitrary surveillance and the interception of communications are highly intrusive acts that violate the right to privacy and may also violate the freedom of expression,” Wittig told the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee.
“Human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium and therefore need to be protected both offline and online,” added Brazil’s UN envoy Antonio Patriota. “States should refrain from and be held accountable for any act that violate these rights, including the right to privacy.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said he positively welcomed the resolution, confirming Indonesia as one of its co-sponsors.
“We are co-sponsors of the resolution, so of course we positively welcome it. There are 23 initiators and 55 co-sponsors of the resolution,” Marty told the Jakarta Globe.
“The resolution has only been approved by the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. But because it’s a consensus, with no voting involved, we believe it will be endorsed at the plenary session in a few weeks from now.”
The minister emphasized Indonesia’s support for the resolution has been strong since its initiation, before the latest surveillance scandal which has seen heated diplomatic ties between Indonesia and Australia.
“Indonesia welcomes the resolution positively because the main message is crystal clear: this reflects that the world is united against violation to privacy through extraterritorial surveillance activities. We need to respect that right for privacy and need to prevent extraterritorial surveillance,” he said.
The United States and key allies Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand — who together make up the so-called “Five-Eyes” intelligence group — joined a consensus vote passing the resolution after language suggesting that foreign spying would be a rights violation was weakened.
The resolution said the UN committee is “deeply concerned at the negative impact” that surveillance and interception of communications “including extra-territorial surveillance” can have on human rights.
Under the resolution, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay will prepare a report on domestic and “extra-territorial” privacy. Wittig also promised a “thorough” debate on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
US Deputy Ambassador Elizabeth Cousens gave backing to the initiative.