Between Utopia and Apology, Universality and Effectiveness
My previous posts have all dealt with the threshold question of whether individuals subject to surveillance overseas should be entitled to human rights in the first place. This post will deal with the substance of the right to privacy in this context, if the right is found to apply. Though my main focus has been on the threshold question of extraterritorial application, and though that question is conceptually distinct from the substantive content of any given right, there is a direct connection as a matter of policy between the inquiries on jurisdiction and on the merits. The more difficult, complex or politically controversial the merits question of whether the substantive right has been violated, the greater the temptation to say that the right simply does not apply. Courts in particular frequently resort to dismissing cases in limine even while furtively casting an eye on the merits, in order to avoid grappling with the merits openly. One cannot really reduce arbitrariness in resolving threshold questions without looking at what the consequences of doing so would be down the line.
I have argued in that regard that the case law on the extraterritorial application of human rights treaties, particularly that of the European Court, straddles a Koskenniemian divide between universality and effectiveness. On one hand we want to follow the moral logic of universality and protect human beings no matter where they are located; on the other we see the enormous practical and political difficulties of doing so. An expansive approach to extraterritoriality can thus be criticized as utopian, as presenting a normative vision which has nothing to do with the real world, whereas a restrictive approach can be dismissed as pure apology for unbridled, arbitrary and limitless exercise of state power which we would never accept domestically.
A persuasive argument regarding the threshold of extraterritorial application hence must also look at the substance and attempt to strike a better balance between universality and effectiveness. It must provide states and courts with sufficient flexibility in the extraterritorial context and not impose unrealistic burdens and restrictions with which they could never comply. Resistance to extraterritorial application flows in large part from the fact that most human rights case law was built in times of normalcy, and the fear that applying this case law to external situations would be rigid and inflexible. However, most human rights, including privacy, analytically employ balancing tests that can be used less strictly if this is justified by the circumstances. (Compare this, for example, with the rigidity of the US Fourth Amendment warrant requirement for searches and seizures, which even in the domestic context leads to narrow interpretations of what is a search or seizure).