International Human Rights Bodies Starting to Address NSA Surveillance Practices

Written by Leslie Harris

Last Monday, I attended an important hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that addressed the U.S. security surveillance programs and the implications for freedom of expression. This was the first time the U.S. has been called on to speak about its surveillance programs in front of an international human rights body, and its response was less than satisfying. After compelling testimony from a panel assembled by the ACLU, the U.S. representative announced that the government did not have enough time to prepare a response because of the government shutdown. The frustration of the Commissioners was palpable.

The hearing was requested by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and CDT submitted comments in support.

Alex Abdo, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project did a terrific job of explaining the dangerous reach of U.S. surveillance law, noting that the law allows collection about foreign affairs, which means the communications of foreign journalists, human right activists, political dissidents, foreign corporations and foreign lawyers are fair game. In fact, he pointed out that most members of the Commission were subject to data collection when they traveled outside of the U.S.

Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression also provided strong testimony, noting that a state’s obligation to provide security to its citizens did not permit it to violate human rights globally, including privacy and free expression. He said surveillance must operate within the rule of law, and must have judicial and parliamentary oversight. He warned that unchecked mass surveillance leads to fear, diminished privacy, and limited free expression.

While the testimony reiterated many of the criticisms that have been voiced in other venues, the importance of the hearing should not be understated. International human rights law is an important frame for global discussions about systematic surveillance. Human rights instruments and venues can be harnessed to illuminate the impact of surveillance on human rights, to shape standards, and to hold countries to their human rights commitments. The IACHR hearing is an important start. The United Nations Human Rights Committee will also look at US surveillance as part of the review of US commitments under the ICCPR early next year.

I look forward to seeing the U.S. response to the questions of the petitioners and the Commissioners, which they promised to provide in writing in 30 days.

Share Post