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Home Human Rights Archive for category "Right To Privacy/Family Life"

UN Human Rights Committee Finds that Ireland’s Abortion Ban Violates the ICCPR

Published on June 13, 2016        Author: 

Last week the UN Human Rights Committee delivered an important decision in Mellet v. Ireland, finding that, as applied to the claimant, the Irish ban on abortion violated several articles of the ICCPR. This was because the ban extended even to pregnancies, like the claimant’s, where the foetus was diagnosed with a fatal abnormality, so that it would either die in utero or shortly after delivery. The claimant was thus forced by Irish law to choose between carrying the baby to term, knowing that it would inevitably die in her womb or immediately after birth, or having to travel to the UK to get an abortion. The claimant chose the latter option, at great personal expense and with a lot of pain and indignity along the way, including having the ashes of her baby unexpectedly delivered to her by courier a few weeks after the abortion.

The Committee was unanimous on the bottom line of the case, which is that the abortion ban, as applied to the claimant, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of Article 7 of the Covenant, as well as a violation of her right to privacy under Article 17 of the Covenant. While the reasoning of the Committee is at times laconic (as is unfortunately the norm with its views), the basic idea behind the decision was essentially that even if the claimant’s rights were subject to an implicit or explicit balancing exercise, in light of the fact that her unborn child would inevitably die there was nothing to balance with the intrusions into her own interests. In other words, Irish law forced her to endure significant suffering for no real purpose, since the unborn child would die anyway.

The Committee’s views in this case are thus confined to its specific circumstances; it has not created a right to abortion on demand or asked Ireland to liberalize access to abortion fully, but to (at the very least) create an exception to its ban that would accommodate women in the claimant’s situation. The main problem here is that the Irish abortion ban stems from a constitutional provision, which was interpreted by the Irish Supreme Court as only allowing for an exception if there is real risk to the life, but not to the health, of the mother. Ireland can thus comply with the Committee’s recommendation only if the Supreme Court revisits the issue and carves out another exception, or if the Constitution itself is amended, which requires a popular referendum. In other words, this is one of those rare cases where domestic constitutional provisions as authoritatively interpreted by domestic courts are themselves violative of international human rights law; this does not change anything as a matter of international law, but clearly it creates specific political challenges for compliance (cf. the Sejdic and Finci judgment of the Strasbourg Court). See more on this point in this post by Fiona de Londras on the Human Rights in Ireland blog; this post by Mairead Enright has more analysis of the Committee’s decision.

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ECHR Jurisdiction and Mass Surveillance: Scrutinising the UK Investigatory Power Tribunal’s Recent Ruling

Published on June 9, 2016        Author: 

Last week, as discussed in a post by Marko Milanovic, the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that it lacked jurisdiction under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) to adjudicate Article 8 and 10 claims brought by persons “situated outside” of the UK (para. 60). The IPT is a specialised judicial body that hears complaints about surveillance by public bodies, including British security and intelligence agencies. IPT decisions are not subject to direct appeal in the UK. We are therefore likely to see this ruling quickly challenged before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Background

The backdrop to this litigation is convoluted. I sketch out the context in this post as I believe it will enrich discussion of the jurisdictional issues which are at the heart of this dispute. In 2013, following the Snowden disclosures, Privacy International, together with nine other NGOs, filed a case before the IPT challenging two aspects of the UK’s surveillance regime. First, the claimants challenged UK access to the communications of persons located within the UK collected by the US National Security Agency (NSA) under PRISM and Upstream. Under PRISM, the NSA collected data from US companies including Yahoo and Google. Under Upstream, the NSA intercepted data in bulk from hundreds of undersea fibre optic cables. Second, the claimants challenged Tempora, the British counterpart to Upstream, under which the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intercepted data in bulk from over 200 cables landing in the UK.

In February 2015, the IPT found that US-UK intelligence sharing – pursuant to PRISM and Upstream – was unlawful prior to 5 December 2014 because the legal framework governing it was hidden from the public (according to the IPT, that framework was sufficiently disclosed over the course of the proceedings so as to render the sharing of intelligence legal from that point forward). Read the rest of this entry…

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UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal Rules that Non-UK Residents Have No Right to Privacy under the ECHR

Published on May 18, 2016        Author: 

In another major development on the surveillance/privacy front, on Tuesday the UK specialized surveillance court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, ruled that persons not present within the United Kingdom are not within the jurisdiction of the UK in the sense of Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and accordingly do not have any of the rights under that Convention (para. 49 et seq). In other words, a person in say France or the United States subjected to surveillance by GCHQ does not have an ECHR right to privacy vis-a-vis the UK, which accordingly has no Convention claim to answer. This is I think the first time that a British court has expressly dealt with extraterritoriality in the surveillance context. The IPT’s reasoning essentially rests on a Bankovic analogy – if you are in say Serbia and the UK drops a bomb on you, the Strasbourg Court has said that you don’t have the right to life. How could you then have the right to privacy if all the UK did was to simply read your email while you were in Serbia?

I have extensively argued elsewhere why that analogy is wrong (as is Bankovic itself), so I won’t belabour that point further (see here and here). It was entirely predictable that the IPT would adopt this restrictive position, which is perfectly plausible under Strasbourg case law (even if fundamentally mistaken). The IPT was correct in ruling, however, that distinctions as to the Convention’s applicability can’t really be made on the basis of whether the person is present is some other Council of Europe state, or is outside the ECHR’s espace juridique altogether. Anyway, the issue of the Convention’s extraterritorial applicability to mass electronic surveillance abroad is one for Strasbourg to decide and (hopefully) fix, and it will have the opportunity to do so in these cases and others. What the Court will do is of course anyone’s guess, because its decision will inevitable have ripple effects on other scenarios, such as extraterritorial uses of lethal force, e.g. drone strikes.

I have also argued, however, that there is particular scenario in which the applicability of the Convention becomes more attractive (or less dangerous as a matter of policy) – when the surveillance actually takes place within the surveilling state’s territory, even if the affected individual is outside it. Imagine, for example, if the UK police searched my flat in Nottingham while I was visiting family in Serbia – surely I would have Article 8 rights, even though I would not be on UK territory when the search took place. Why then should I not have these rights if an email I send while I am in Serbia is routed through my university server in Nottingham and intercepted by GCHQ there? In both cases the intrusion into privacy happens on the UK’s territory, even if I am outside it. In fact, in its judgment the IPT briefly addresses this scenario, if all too briefly and less than convincingly, although I’m not sure that the point was extensively argued.

In any case, the main paragraphs on the jurisdiction issue are below the fold. The judgment also deals with the very important question of standing/victim status, finding that all but six of the 600+ claimants lacked locus standi even under a very low threshold of showing that they are ‘potentially at risk’ from surveillance measures (applying the European Court’s recent Zakharov judgment, para. 171).

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Silencing the Canary: the lawfulness of the U.K. Investigatory Powers Bill’s secrecy provisions under the ECHR

Published on May 17, 2016        Author: 

Following the Snowden revelations in 2013 concerning the complicity of the tech industry in widespread electronic government surveillance in the U.S., tech companies have individually and collectively become increasingly active as advocates of privacy and free speech rights, culminating in legal challenges to government electronic surveillance.

Since the dropping by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) of its much publicised writ against Apple, which sought to compel Apple to hack the security key code system of the Apple iPhone 5, the battle between tech companies and the DOJ over privacy and encryption in the U.S. has taken another turn.  In April, Microsoft filed a suit in the District Court of Seattle against the DOJ challenging the ‘secrecy order’ provisions (a range of anti-tipping off and gagging powers) under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

With the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), which contains similar secrecy requirements, currently being debated before the U.K. Parliament, the U.S. case provides fair warning of possible human rights challenges tech companies may bring against the U.K. government. This post will consider the implications of the Bill’s secrecy provisions in light of the rights of tech companies under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Microsoft – DOJ claim                                                 

In short, the ECPA allows a U.S. government agency to apply to the Court for a warrant requiring Microsoft, or any other internet company, to hand over their customers’ private data. In addition, an order can be made by the court preventing the company from publicising the fact that they have been required to disclose the data. Read the rest of this entry…

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First Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy to the Human Rights Council

Published on March 18, 2016        Author: 

In March 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council created a new special procedure on the right to privacy, appointing its first Special Rapporteur on the topic, Professor Joseph Cannataci, in July 2015. Last week, the Special Rapporteur presented the Human Rights Council with his first report and engaged in an interactive dialogue with the Council. He also provided an outline of the main features of his report at a side event at the Council organised by Austria, Brazil, Germany, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights with former US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe as the chair and myself, Carly Nyst and Faiza Patel as panellists (report forthcoming). As a first report, the Special Rapporteur acknowledges that it is still very much ‘preliminary’ (para. 3). At the same time, he provides a detailed outline of the themes he proposes to focus on during his mandate. In this blog, I reflect on the scope of the mandate, the choice of themes and suggest ways in which the Special Rapporteur might develop some of the themes during his mandate.

The Scope of the Mandate

  1. Privacy and Personality across cultures
  2. Corporate on-line business models and personal data use
  3. Security, surveillance, proportionality and cyberpeace
  4. Open data and Big Data analytics: the impact on privacy
  5. Genetics and privacy
  6. Privacy, dignity and reputation
  7. Biometrics and privacy

The number and range of themes identified is ambitious. However, in my view, the Special Rapporteur’s selection strikes a good balance between continuing to prioritise the risks to the right to privacy posed by security and surveillance and taking a wider view of the impact of big data and new technologies on human rights outside of the security context which has not received adequate attention to date. Read the rest of this entry…

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Blockbuster Strasbourg Judgment on Surveillance in Russia

Published on December 7, 2015        Author: 

Last Friday a unanimous Grand Chamber of the European Court delivered a hugely important judgment in Roman Zakharov v. Russia, no. 47143/06, in which it found serious and systematic faults with the Russian legislative framework regulating the surveillance of mobile communications. This is set to be a leading Strasbourg authority on assessing the compliance of surveillance measures with human rights law, a topic we’ve already extensively discussed on the blog. This judgment important for a number of reasons.

First, because a unanimous Grand Chamber reaffirmed much of relatively older or Chamber-based case law, and applied the principles it identified robustly. This provides an important indication that the Court remains acutely aware of the dangers surveillance programs possibly pose to democratic societies, and that it will also scrutinize such programs robustly in the cases shortly coming before it, e.g. against the United Kingdom. I must say that I was particularly struck by how the Russian judge in the Court, Judge Dedov, concluded his concurring opinion with a quote from Edward Snowden – with the added irony of Snowden still continuing his sojourn in Russia, the very country whose regulatory system of surveillance the Court exposed as so sorely inadequate.

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Embedding Human Rights in Internet Governance

In Resolution 56/183 (2001), the UN General Assembly welcomed the creation of an inter-governmental World Summit on the Information Society (‘WSIS’) to address the digital revolution and the increasing digital divide between the global North and South. During the Summit’s two phases (Geneva, 2003 and Tunis, 2005) a common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-orientated Information Societyemerged. A key objective was therefore to harness the power of information and communications technology (ICT) to secure the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

A decade on, and against the backdrop of the recent transition from the MDGs to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a review of the implementation of the WSIS outcomes is underway. Delegations met last week for the Second Preparatory Meeting of the UN General Assembly’s Overall Review of the Implementation of the Outcomes of the WSIS (‘WSIS+10 Review’). The aim of this meeting was to engage member States and other stakeholders to reach a consensus on critical issues, such as the goals of Internet governance, the relationship between WSIS and development and how to address human rights related to ICT. Oral statements and written submissions served as the basis for developing the current Zero Draft into a Second Draft. The WSIS+10 Review will culminate in a High-Level Meeting on 15-16 December, at which an Outcome Document will be adopted.

Treatment of human rights in the Zero Draft is inadequate. A sub-section on human rights is included within Internet governance and there are other brief references scattered throughout the Draft. However, human rights are not presented as a foundational principle of Internet governance, but are rather narrowly confined to issues of freedom of expression and the right to privacy. In this post and in our response to the Zero Draft as part of an ESRC Funded Large Grant on Human Rights and Information Technology in an Era of Big Data, we argue ]for a more systematic approach to human rights in this process, in order to reflect the full scope of the human rights issues raised by the use of ICT and big data.

Opportunities and Challenges Presented by the Use of ICT and Big Data

Technology has the potential to produce an impact on all aspects of society. The use of ICT is becoming essential to the conduct of government operations, to business, and to individuals’ day-to-day lives. ICT and human rights have become inextricably intertwined, and this is set to continue in line with progress towards the Information Society. This interconnectivity means that ICT has concrete human rights implications, which can be both positive and negative. Significantly, however, the full extent of ICT’s human rights implications are not yet known.

The transformative potential of ICT and big data for the protection and promotion of human rights is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, digital platforms have facilitated local and global dialogue between human rights defenders, minorities and other democratic voices, giving rise to the phrase ‘liberation technology’. Analytics and the use of big data can assist in the identification of otherwise invisible forms of vulnerability and discrimination. This information can be utilised to target interventions and to facilitate efficient resource allocation and can therefore be employed to facilitate the achievement of the SDGs. For example, in relation to ‘good health and well-being’ (Goal 3), the adoption of e-health and m-health (where health services are delivered electronically or via mobile devices) can lead to cost-effective access to health care. Equally, the analysis of data drawn from a significant number of electronic health records (big data-based analytics) can be used to identify appropriate treatments and facilitate early intervention, reducing future health care costs. Technological assistance in the identification of vulnerability and discrimination also facilitates ‘reduced inequalities’ (Goal 10), and can assist in tackling the ‘digital divide’.

However, the inappropriate use of ICT and big data has the potential to interfere with the enjoyment of human rights and thereby undermine the opportunities for realising human rights and attaining the SDGs. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Growing Importance of Data Protection in Public International Law

Globalization and borderless electronic communication has brought huge benefits to individuals. At the same time, the increased exploitation of personal data by the private sector and reported intelligence gathering of personal data via the Internet have caused widespread international concern. The recent appointment by the UN Human Rights Council of a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy in the summer of 2015, and the adoption on 18 December 2013 by the UN General Assembly of a resolution on “the right to privacy in the digital age”, demonstrate the growing international interest in data protection rights.

There is a growing need for legal rules protecting the processing of personally-identifiable data, known as data protection, to be anchored more firmly in public international law. The increasing number of regulatory conflicts caused by differing national and regional conceptions of data protection, as illustrated by the judgment of 6 October 2015 of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Maximillian Schrems, should be a wake-up call to the international community in this regard.

Indeed, data protection at the international level remains fragmented and weak, creating risks for individuals and problems for international organizations (such as UN entities and international humanitarian organizations), many of which process large amounts of personal data. Read the rest of this entry…

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Human Rights Treaties and Foreign Surveillance

Published on September 28, 2015        Author: 

A quick heads-up that the final version of my article on Human Rights Treaties and Foreign Surveillance: Privacy in the Digital Age, is now available on the website of the Harvard International Law Journal. The article grew from a series of posts I did here on this topic. The published version also contains a postscript addressing some of the recent developments after the piece was accepted for publication; see here generally for the blog’s coverage of surveillance issues.

In the meantime the UN Human Rights Council has appointed Prof. Joseph Cannataci of the University of Malta as the first special rapporteur on privacy. His candidacy enjoyed significant support from privacy organizations, while his election took no small amount of politicking, with the German president of the Council overruling a proposal made by a five-state consultative group, which favoured Estonian Prof. Katrin Nyman-Metcalf, who was perceived as not being sufficiently critical of mass surveillance practices. Prof. Cannataci, on the other hand, has already come out with harsh criticisms of digital surveillance programmes; he inter alia “described British surveillance oversight as being “a joke”, and said the situation is worse than anything George Orwell could have foreseen.”

Hyperbole aside, Prof. Cannataci has also called for the adoption of a “Geneva Convention” for the Internet “to safeguard data and combat the threat of massive clandestine digital surveillance.” And a couple of days ago Edward Snowden and a group of activists came out with one such proposal, labelled the “International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers,” or the “Snowden Treaty” for short. Only a short and uninformative summary seems to be publicly available at this time.

I must say that I have grave misgivings about such proposals (with the caveat that the proposed draft has not yet been published). First of all, proposing such a new treaty implies that the existing legal framework is incapable of meaningfully regulating surveillance practices, despite the relevant privacy provisions in the ICCPR, the ECHR and the ACHR, and despite existing case law and materials (especially from the Strasbourg Court). In other words, proposing a binding gap-filling instrument assumes that a regulatory gap exists. Secondly, politically it seems exceptionally unlikely that any of the major players in the surveillance sphere (e.g. the US, UK, Russia, China), not to mention authoritarian regimes in many smaller states, would agree to any binding multilateral treaty in the foreseeable future, let alone to a comprehensive “Geneva Convention for the Internet.” Nor will the “Snowden Treaty” label make this proposed agreement any more politically palatable. So it’s just completely unclear to me what a feel-good, pie in the sky proposal such as this one is actually going to achieve, except needlessly waste precious political energy and undermine efforts to regulate surveillance and other intrusive cyber practices under the existing legal framework.

But let’s wait and see. In the meantime, Jessup competitors this year will have a nice, fat surveillance case to litigate before a fictional ICJ, and best of luck to them.

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The Ballad of Google Spain

Published on September 7, 2015        Author: 

This poem was submitted for our Last Page, but given its wit and topicality I thought it should go on our First Page, namely in this Editorial. Kudos to Paul Bernal.

There was a case, called ‘Google Spain’
That caused us all no end of pain
Do we have a right to be forgotten?
Are Google’s profits a touch ill-gotten?

From over the pond came shouts of ‘Free Speech!’
So loud and so shrill they were almost a screech
From the ECJ came a bit of a gloat
‘We’ve got that Google by the throat!’

Said Google ‘If it’s games you play’
‘We’ll do that too, all night and day’
So they blocked and blocked, and told the press
‘It’s that evil court, we’re so distressed’

’Such censorship,’ they cried and cried
Though ‘twas themselves who did the deeds
They didn’t need to block the links
They were just engaging in hijinks

And many stood beside them proudly
Shouting ‘freedom’, oh so loudly
‘Google is our free-speech hero!’
‘We’ll fight with them, let’s be clear-oh!’

Others watched and raised their eyebrows
Listening wryly to these vows
And thought ‘is Google really pure?’
‘From what we’ve seen, we’re far less sure.’

For Google blocks all kinds of sites
‘Specially for those with copyright
And, you know, this isn’t funny,
When blocking things will make them money

This isn’t just about free speech
No matter how much Google preach
What matters here is really power
Is this truly Google’s hour?

Does Google have complete control
Or do the law courts have a role?
Time will tell – but on the way
Our privacy will have to pay…

Paul Bernal

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