The Fight for Privacy at the Human Rights Council

News.- A new UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy is soon to be appointed, as unanimously agreed at the Human Rights Council on March 26, 2015. 


The countries that have focused efforts on revealing the threats to privacy in the digital context are Germany and Brazil. The importance of privacy on the Internet was stressed by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil at the UN General Assembly in 2013. Reports suggesting that “both Rousseff and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were victims of US espionage” were also made. What followed were two resolutions adopted by the General Assembly, “a high-level panel at the Human Rights Council, and a report by the then-UN high commissioner on human rights, Navi Pillay”. In this regard, Human Rights Watch stated that “the advancement in digital technology has had many positive social effects. But the inexorable move toward the digitization of information also has meant that governments have enhanced ability to monitor citizens’ movements, censor speech, block or filter access to information, and track communications.”Eileen Donahoe, director of global affairs at Human Rights Watch, also mentioned that the way “privacy is protected online is one of the most pressing issues of our time.” 

As a result of digital surveillance and the collection of personal data, human rights defenders are increasingly threatened, attacked and work in an unsafe environment. Yet it is known that “privacy is a gateway right that affects the ability to exercise almost every other right, in particular freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association”.Eileen Donahoe further noted: “When everything you say or do can be intercepted, monitored, or become the object of surveillance, it has a chilling effect on what people feel free to say, where they feel free to go, and with whom they choose to meet.”

The mandate of the UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy is broad: it covers all aspects of privacy. This rapporteur appointed to “watch those that are watching us” will be able to carry out his mandate through a variety of means.

The Human Rights Council summarized the duties of the UN special rapporteur on the right to privacy as follows:

• "systematically reviewing government policies on interception of digital communications and collection of personal data and pinpointing policies that intrude on privacy without compelling justification;

• identifying best practices to bring global surveillance under the rule of law and helping ensure that national procedures and laws that have bearing on privacy are consistent with international human rights law obligations;

• examining private sector responsibilities to respect human rights under the “Protect, Respect, Remedy framework” of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, in the specific context of digital information and communication technology;

• helping develop international norms that more effectively address the interaction between privacy, freedom of expression, and other human rights in the digital context;

• bringing focused attention to factors that facilitate overbroad surveillance, including widely varying practices and levels of transparency about what data businesses retain, and how those practices in many instances have a direct bearing on what governments are able to collect and monitor; and working with other UN experts on protecting free expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and human rights defenders, to identify specific threats to rights in the context of indiscriminate mass surveillance, leading to a more comprehensive approach to the protection of privacy".