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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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One Response

  1. Jordan

    problem: the ICCPR applies globally, but persons who have a right to freedom from “arbitrary” and “unlawful” interference with their “privacy” are only those on a listening state’s territory, territory that it occupies, its territorial equivalents (e.g., vessels) or who are in the “effective control” of the state (e.g., ) — i.e., not those listened to by a satellite in outer space.