A UN rights committee on Tuesday passed a “right to privacy” resolution pressed by Germany and Brazil, which 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,” he added.
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 extraterritorial surveillance” can have on human rights.
Germany and Brazil had wanted the text to say the assembly was “deeply concerned at human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance of communications.”
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.
She did not mention the NSA controversy, but told the committee: “In some cases, conduct that violates privacy rights may also seriously impede or even prevent the exercise of freedom of expression, but conduct that violates privacy rights does not violate the right to freedom of expression in every case.”
Indonesia, which is involved in a battle with Australia over allegations of spying on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, spoke out strongly for the resolution.
North Korea, one of the world’s most tightly controlled countries and an unlikely ally backing the resolution, used the meeting to slam US spying.
North Korean ambassador Sin Son-Ho accused the United States of “hypocrisy and deception” in condemning other countries’ human rights records.
Human Rights Watch specialist Philippe Bolopion said it was unfortunate that the resolution had been watered down.
But he said it was “a vital first step toward stigmatizing indiscriminate global surveillance.”
The non-binding resolution will now go to the full 193-member UN General Assembly for a vote.