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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 4: Do Human Rights Treaties Apply to Extraterritorial Interferences with Privacy?

Published on November 28, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5.

Bearing in mind the three models of extraterritorial application that I outlined in my previous post, the only model which provides an easy, clear answer is the third one. If the negative obligation to respect the right to privacy is territorially unlimited, then any interference with this right in any place in the world would implicate the ICCPR or the ECHR. This is not to say that such interferences, whether through a mass surveillance program or a targeted one, would necessarily be illegal. Rather, any such interference would need to be substantively justified within the analytical framework of human rights treaties (i.e. is the interference prescribed by law; does it serve a legitimate aim; is it proportionate to that aim). No threshold question of jurisdiction would arise, and just like with purely internal surveillance the analysis would need to be one on the merits. But again, this is also not to say that on the merits internal and external surveillance would need to be treated equally in every respect – more on this in my next, and final, post.

The third model provides a clear answer on the threshold question of applicability, but also one that is very broad and immediately leads to examination of the merits which carries with it its own uncertainties. This is precisely why the third model may not be appealing to those actors, be they governments, secret services, courts, or what have you, who would want to avoid the difficulties of a merits analysis or the constrains of human rights treaties altogether.

I will thus proceed to situate the following discussion within the confined of the more established spatial and personal models. But as soon as I do so, we will see how we run into uncertainty, complexity, and potential for arbitrariness. This is at least partly due to the fact that technological advances in obtaining information have rendered the exercise of manual, physical power over individuals unnecessary or less necessary. While privacy law in the information era frequently developed by analogy to old-school physical searches or interferences, be it in domestic systems (say under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution) or in international human rights law, there comes a point at which such analogies are no longer feasible or are outright misleading.

But such analogies can be a useful starting point. I will now outline some scenarios of possible interferences with privacy through searches, interception, or surveillance, starting with the more physical and ending with the most virtual. Under existing case law all of these actions by state agents against individuals could in principle count as interferences with their privacy rights under either the ECHR or the ICCPR if these actions were to occur on the state’s own territory. The problem I want to get at is jurisdiction, i.e. whether human rights treaties would apply in the first place if the state engaged in such conduct extraterritorially under either the spatial or the personal model, and whether distinctions should be made in terms of jurisdiction between the physical and the virtual methods of gathering information.

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 3: Models of Extraterritorial Application

Published on November 27, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.

In this post I will provide a brief outline of the (often conflicting and confusing) case law on the meaning of the concept of state jurisdiction in human rights treaties. I will examine the spatial model of jurisdiction, which conceptualizes it as effective overall control of an area, the personal model of jurisdiction as authority and control over individuals, and a third model which distinguishes between the positive and negative obligations of states under human rights treaties. My next post will proceed to apply these models to several possible factual scenarios of overseas surveillance.

The European Court has produced by far the most case law on extraterritorial application, both in quantity and in variety. No case that I am aware of, however, deals directly with the question of extraterritorial application of the Convention to foreign searches, interceptions, or surveillance. The issue is thus one very much of first impression. The jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee, on the other hand, is not as conflicting or contradictory, even if it is less varied. The Committee has also generally been more generous towards applicants than the European Court; unless I am mistaken, there is no case in which the Committee rejected the communication of a person who made an arguable case that his or her rights were violated extraterritorially on the grounds that this person was not subject to the jurisdiction of the relevant state. (The Committee’s generosity can be explained, in my view, by the fact that it does not necessarily need to live with the consequences of an expansive approach in the same way as the Strasbourg Court, where the stakes are higher because of the greater robustness of the regime and the binding nature of the Court’s decisions).

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 2: Interpreting the ICCPR

Published on November 26, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Comparing the ICCPR and the ECHR

The scope of many human rights treaties is at least partly determined by how we interpret their jurisdiction clauses, and here we can observe some important differences. I will limit myself in this analysis in looking solely at the ICCPR and the ECHR, the former because most states engaging in overseas surveillance will be parties to it (like the US), the latter because of the relative strength and influence of its enforcement mechanisms and the European Court of Human Rights’ extensive (and conflicting) jurisprudence on questions of territorial application.

Article 2(1) ICCPR provides that ‘[e]ach State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant,’ whereas Article 1 ECHR stipulates that the ‘High Contracting Parties shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention.’ The main difference between the two provisions is the ICCPR’s reference to territory, but there is also the ICCPR’s distinction between the obligations to respect and to ensure, while the ECHR speaks of the obligation to respect in the heading of Article 1, but only of the obligation to secure in the actual text. (I will return to the distinction between positive and negative obligations later in this series). The magic word in both texts is (state) ‘jurisdiction’, but the question arises whether the ICCPR’s seemingly conjunctive reference to territory admits of any extraterritorial application, and if it does whether the interpretations of the ICCPR and the ECHR should align or not.

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights, Part 1: Do Foreigners Deserve Privacy?

Published on November 25, 2013        Author: 

This post is part of a series: Intro, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

One robust feature of US legal discourse is an emphasis on citizenship as a basis for fundamental rights. This is true not only of case law (viz. the US Supreme Court’s holding in Verdugo-Urquidez, dealing with a search by US agents of a Mexican national’s property in Mexico, that non-resident aliens are not protected by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution), but also of public debate more generally, which frequently starts from the assumption that citizens naturally have constitutional rights, whereas foreigners do not. But while this kind of citizenship discourse is especially prominent in the US, it is by no means confined to it. Notably, the statutes regulating surveillance powers in all of the Five Eyes countries frequently make distinctions between eavesdropping on citizens (and perhaps permanent residents) versus non-citizens, as well as surveillance that takes place in or outside the state’s territory. Under these statutory frameworks non-citizens enjoy fewer protections than citizens, if they have any rights at all.

In order to assess its implication in international human rights law, we first need to look at the possible justifications for this citizenship-oriented approach. In contrast to arguments by David Cole (here and here) and Kenneth Roth in favour of a global human rights to privacy, Orin Kerr at Lawfare rightly points out that the citizenship-oriented approach stems from a different conception of government, one of ‘governments as having legitimacy because of the consent of the governed, which triggers rights and obligations to and from its citizens and those in its territorial borders.’ This is an essentially contractarian conception of the Constitution, which sees it as the manifestation of a social compact.

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Foreign Surveillance and Human Rights: Introduction

Published on November 25, 2013        Author: 

The past few weeks have seen increasing discussions of how human rights treaties might apply to mass electronic surveillance programs as run e.g. by the NSA and GCHQ or the agencies of the other ‘Five Eyes’ countries. Indeed, the already is or soon will be pending litigation challenging the compatibility of these programs with privacy guarantees under the relevant human rights treaties or under domestic constitutional law. Some of these cases are likely to proceed to an examination of the merits, particularly in Europe, where standing, state secrets and political question doctrines are either non-existent or are not as onerous for applicants to overcome as they are in the United States.

Similarly, the UN General Assembly is currently considering a proposed joint German-Brazilian resolution that would affirm the relevance of the right to privacy in the context of mass electronic surveillance (reports here and here). The draft resolution directly relies on Article 17 ICCPR, under which ‘[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.’ The United States, on the other hand, is working hard to water down the text of the resolution, and is particularly anxious for the resolution to avoid affirming that the ICCPR applies extraterritorially. Apparently the US has actually managed to do so, but we will see what the final outcome will be.

This is the introduction to a series of posts on the application of human rights treaties to foreign surveillance. The main focus of the series is on the threshold question of whether human rights treaties would apply at all to extraterritorial interferences with privacy. The debate has a number of priors, so readers will forgive me (and be warned of) the number and length of the posts. The posts will go live during the course of the week.

This series builds upon our previous coverage of these issues in two posts by Anne Peters (here and here) and last week’s post by Carly Nast of Privacy International. I will be updating the links to each post in the series as it goes live.

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The Extraterritorial Seizure of Individuals under International Law – The Case of al-Liby: Part II

Published on November 7, 2013        Author: 

In this second of two posts I intend to continue the analysis of the extraterritorial seizure of individuals under international law, with a particular focus upon the recent arrest, detention and now trial of the al-Qaida leader al-Liby by the United States, who was wanted in connection with the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In the previous post I addressed the prescriptive jurisdiction of the US over these offences and, noting that its enforcement was territorially limited, looked at two possibilities as to how enforcement may occur; the consent of the Libyan authorities and in self-defence. While the existence of the former would have justified the entering of Libyan territory, question marks still existed in connection with al-Liby’s human rights in such operations. This issue will be addressed in this post. By contrast, while it is at least possible that extraterritorial seizures could be justified as self-defence, the US has thus far failed to demonstrate that the Libyan authorities were unable or unwilling to apprehend and hand-over al-Liby to the US, instead basing the operation broadly upon the ‘laws of war’.  As such, whether this branch of the law permits such operations will be addressed first.

Arrest and detention as part of an armed conflict

Assuming here for the sake of argument that the US is in a state of war/armed conflict with al-Qaida, and similarly assuming for the sake of argument that given the absence of two state parties this is a non-international armed conflict per the ambiguous Hamdan judgment, the law of armed conflict says very little about powers of detention in such conflicts, as opposed to the rather extensive provision it makes for the issue (particularly in GCIII) in armed conflicts of an international nature.

It could be argued that there is a power of extrajudicial detention in non-international armed conflicts under customary international law. Indeed, this appears to be the view of the US and certain other states. Yet, the rules that do exist in the law of non-international armed conflicts governing detention are concerned with the general treatment and trial of individuals after they have been detained, as opposed to providing prior grounds for detention and thus ensuring that any deprivation of liberty is not of an arbitrary nature. Instead, such issues are left to the domestic law of the state where the non-international armed conflict is taking place and/or international human rights law. In this respect, regardless of whether the claim of the US in regards to its armed conflict with al-Qaida is well-founded or not, given the extraterritorial nature of the arrest and detention of al-Liby questions are raised as to whether, and if so how, international human rights law provides a form of regulation to the actions of the US. Read the rest of this entry…

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Surveillance without Borders: The Unlawfulness of the NSA Panopticon, Part II

Published on November 4, 2013        Author: 

This is Part II of a post assessing the international law implications of the U.S. National Security Agency’s global spying program. Part I focused the general international law implications of the program. This part focuses on potential violations of human rights law and breaches of the law of diplomacy.

Constitutional fundamental rights binding the European states

In probably all surveilled states, citizens enjoy a constitutional right to privacy which has been affected by secret surveillance measures by the NSA. Fundamental rights embodied in European constitutions bind only the territorial state, not the USA. The territorial states’ responsibility under their own constitutional law could be involved through their condonement, toleration, or by just refraining from protesting against surveillance measures by the NSA.

In Germany, the secrecy of communication is protected by Art. 10 of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG). This fundamental right may be lawfully restricted. The principal relevant legislation in Germany is the Gesetz zur Beschränkung des Brief-, Post und Fernmeldegeheimnisses as of 26 June 2001, colloquially called the G10-Act. This Act allows for measures to repel “dangers to the troops of the non-German contracting parties of the NATO treaty” (§ 1 of the G10-Act). That Act allows for different types of restrictions of the fundamental right to privacy, for example “strategic limitations”. But all restrictions are tied to specific conditions, for example, “concrete clues” must exist to found a “suspicion”. Also, the Act only authorises specific German agencies to perform surveillance measures, notably the German intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst). Third, specific procedures must be respected. Finally, the affected persons must be informed ex post, and they are guaranteed access to non-judicial remedies. None of these preconditions have been met in the course of NSA-surveillance. It remains to be seen whether German authorities have violated citizens’ fundamental right to privacy by tolerating NSA measures. Read the rest of this entry…

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Surveillance Without Borders? The Unlawfulness of the NSA-Panopticon, Part I

Published on November 1, 2013        Author: 

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Introduction: The draft GA resolution on privacy on the Internet

At the end of October 2013, a draft General Assembly resolution calling for the right to privacy on the Internet was sponsored by Brazil and Germany. (photo: a panopticon, credit)

The draft resolution reaffirms the human right to privacy. It calls upon states to take measures to put an end to violations of these rights (operative para. 4 b), calls upon states to review their procedures, practices and legislation concerning the extra-territorial surveillance of private communications (para. 4 b) and calls upon states to establish independent oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring the transparency and accountability of state surveillance of communications (para. 4 d).

Although the draft resolution does not mention the United States or the National Security Agency (NSA), it is indirectly reacting against the NSA’s recent espionage and surveillance activities conducted in a number of European states, including France, Italy, and Spain. This two-part post will focus on surveillance of German officials including the chancellor Angela Merkel and of ordinary persons in Germany by way of example. Spying on government officials concerns general international law, which will be the focus of Part I of this post. Part II will focus on the bugging of the communication of private persons, which implicates human rights law.

Breach of international law vis-à-vis the surveilled states

The interception of communication by government officials, agents, and authorities seems to constitute espionage. However, there are no specific international law norms that would contain or regulate espionage.

Spying has been more common (and more acceptable under international law) during war and under the international rules of armed conflict. If the United States seek to justify their surveillance activities by pointing to the “global war on terror” or, to use the term employed by former US legal adviser Harold Koh, “armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces”, the US would first have to show that there is indeed, in Germany, an armed conflict of this type. This seems difficult to demonstrate because the geographic and substantive nexus to the battlefield is lacking. Read the rest of this entry…

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Freedom of Religion and Religious Symbols: Same Right – Different Interpretation?

Published on October 10, 2013        Author: 

stephanie berryStephanie E. Berry is Lecturer in Public Law at the University of Sussex.

As the debate over the wearing of religious attire in State institutions in Western Europe has reignited over previous weeks, it is pertinent to consider the protection provided under international law to those who wish to exercise this element of freedom of religion. As has been well documented, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has been willing to accept restrictions on the right to manifest religion by wearing religious attire under article 9(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights on the grounds of the ‘rights and freedoms of others’ (specifically gender equality, pluralism and tolerance and State neutrality) (see, for example, Dahlab v Switzerland; Şahin v Turkey) and public order and safety (Phull v France; El-Morsli v France). However, the wide margin of appreciation afforded to States and the failure of the ECtHR to probe whether restrictions on the right to manifest religion are proportionate have been the subject of criticism.

Until recently the right to manifest religion by wearing religious attire under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) had rarely been considered by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) (see Singh Bhinder v Canada and Hudoyberganova v Uzbekistan). Notably, however, the HRC does not recognise that States have a margin of appreciation. Thus, in two recent cases concerning the right to manifest the Sikh religion by wearing religious attire, a significant divergence between the approach of the HRC and the ECtHR can be observed.

800px-Sikhs_on_the_move!In Mann Singh v France and Ranjit Singh v France the ECtHR and HRC, respectively, considered the right of a Sikh man to manifest his religion by wearing a turban on a photograph affixed to an identification document. In Mann Singh v France, the ECtHR acknowledged that the requirement that the applicant appear without his turban in the photograph affixed to his driving license constituted an interference with the right to manifest religion. However, the ECtHR accepted that the restriction was justified on the grounds of ‘public safety’ and ‘public order’ under article 9(2) ECHR. Notably, the ECtHR deferred to the discretion of the State and, thus, did not examine the legitimacy of the State’s assertion that the removal of the turban was necessary to allow the identification of the driver and to avoid fraud. (photo credit)

Similarly, in Ranjit Singh v France the HRC considered the requirement that Sikhs remove their turbans in photographs affixed to residents permits, (paras 2.12-2.2) a requirement again justified by France on the grounds of public order and public safety (para 5.3) under article 18(3) ICCPR. Although the HRC recognised that the aim of the restriction was legitimate, (para 8.4), in direct contrast to the ECtHR, the HRC found:

 [T]hat the State party has not explained why the wearing of a Sikh turban covering the top of the head and a portion of the forehead but leaving the rest of the face clearly visible would make it more difficult to identify the author than if he were to appear bareheaded, since he wears his turban at all times. Nor has the State party explained how, specifically, identity photographs in which people appear bareheaded help to avert the risk of fraud or falsification of residence permits. (para 8.4)

The HRC continued to consider the potential for this interference to result in continuing violations of the applicant’s rights ‘because he would always appear without his religious head covering in the identity photograph and could therefore be compelled to remove his turban during identity checks’ (para 8.4). By exercising a higher level of scrutiny of the justifications given by the State for the restriction of the right to manifest religion, than the ECtHR in Mann Singh v France, the HRC was able to assess the proportionality of the interference and found a violation of freedom of religion. Read the rest of this entry…

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US Fourth ICCPR Report, IHRL and IHL

Published on January 19, 2012        Author: 

The US Government recently submitted to the Human Rights Committee its fourth periodic report on its compliance with the ICCPR. On the issues near and dear to my heart – the extraterritorial application of the ICCPR and the relationship between IHRL and IHL – the new report presents a significant softening of the US position. Or, to be more precise, the report leaves the door open for a shift in the US position in the relatively near future (assuming, I imagine, that Obama manages to win re-election). Thus, paras. 504-505 of the report on extraterritoriality summarize the previous US position and those of the HRC and the ICJ, but do not contest the latter.  Paras. 506-507 on IHL are a bit more meaningful, and bear quoting in full:

506. With respect to the application of the Covenant and the international law of armed conflict (also referred to as international humanitarian law or “IHL”), the United States has not taken the position that the Covenant does not apply “in time of war.” Indeed, a time of war does not suspend the operation of the Covenant to matters within its scope of application. To cite but two obvious examples from among many, a State Party’s participation in a war would in no way excuse it from respecting and ensuring rights to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice or the right and opportunity of every citizen to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections.

507. More complex issues arise with respect to the relevant body of law that determines whether a State’s actions in the actual conduct of an armed conflict comport with international law. Under the doctrine of lex specialis, the applicable rules for the protection of individuals and conduct of hostilities in armed conflict are typically found in international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Hague Regulations of 1907, and other international humanitarian law instruments, as well as in the customary international law of armed conflict. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that international human rights law and the law of armed conflict are in many respects complementary and mutually reinforcing. These two bodies of law contain many similar protections. For example prohibitions on torture and cruel treatment exist in both, and the drafters in each area have drawn from the other in developing aspects of new instruments; the Commentaries to Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions make clear that a number of provisions in the Protocol were modeled on comparable provisions in the ICCPR. Determining the international law rule that applies to a particular action taken by a government in the context of an armed conflict is a fact-specific determination, which cannot be easily generalized, and raises especially complex issues in the context of non-international armed conflicts occurring within a State’s own territory.

Note how the US report has now started using the customary buzzwords of the IHL/IHRL project (‘complementary’, ‘mutually reinforcing’), while at the same time presenting its lex specialis argument in less drastic terms than before. The last sentence of para. 507 is particularly noteworthy, as the US now argues that the relationship between the two bodies of law requires a fact-specific determination in any given case, rather than just treating IHL as displacing IHRL wholesale, while it leaves room for complementary application particularly in times of internal armed conflict. (Note the construction ‘non-international armed conflicts occurring within a State’s own territory’, which is presumably meant to exclude cross-border NIACs of the sort that the US claims it is engaged in with Al-Qaeda).

We’ll see whether the US position will continute to evolve – but there is some reason here for optimism. The reference to lex specialis is still unfortunate, in my view, as that pithy Latin phrase has very little to teach on the interaction between norms (see more here, and in a more updated form in the last chapter of my book). In that regard, readers might also be interested in the debate between Gabor Rona and Jens Ohlin at Opinio Juris and Jens’ new blog, the LieberCode.

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