Principles on Surveillance and Human Rights: UNHRC must take action on surveillance

staff image


20 Sep 2013


This content is available in: Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian


ARTICLE 19 welcomes the release of the “International Principles on the Applications of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance” as an important step forward in better elaborating international human rights law around surveillance.

The Principles set minimum standards for the protection of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy at a time when these rights are under increasing threat from mass surveillance. The revelations about the USA and UK’s practices of mass surveillance were discussed extensively at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last week, with representatives from many countries expressing concern about the methods used by the National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ.

The Principles were developed by a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy International, Access, and ARTICLE 19. They have now been endorsed by 258 CSOs around the world.

They were developed in order to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and privacy against mass surveillance. The principles will be presented at a side event at the 24th session of the UNHRC on Friday 20 September.

Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Hungary, as hosts of the side event, have issued a joint statement calling for the UNHRC to address ways to strike a sound balance between legitimate public and security concerns and the fundamental human right to privacy in the digital age.

The Principles call for:

  • Clear laws governing how state authorities may access communications data;
  • Communications data to be given the same protection as the content of communications;
  • Access to communications data to be authorised by a competent judicial authority;
  • Prior or post, user notification that a request for communications data has been authorised; 
  • Transparency about the use and scope of communications surveillance powers
  • Effective public oversight of the implementation of surveillance laws;
  • Better protection for the integrity of communications and systems;
  • Strong privacy safeguards in mutual legal assistance treaties;
  • The introduction of criminal offences against illegitimate access to communications data;
  • The protection of whistleblowers.

ARTICLE 19 notes that the type and scale of the mass surveillance in question has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression and information. People are much less likely to express themselves and share information if they know, or suspect, that their personal records are being collected by the government. The monitoring of online communications promotes self-censorship.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the UNHRC to endorse these principles, and for their adoption by the UN General Assembly.

ARTICLE 19 further encourages the Human Rights Committee, the treaty monitoring body for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to draft a new General Comment on Article 17 of the ICCPR (the right to privacy) to replace General Comment 16 on this issue from 1988, which is outdated and limited.  The new General Comment should:

  • Incorporate the Principles;
  • Include commentary on the relationship of privacy and freedom of expression;
  • Provide guidance on adopting data protection for the public and private sectors;
  • Ensure that journalists and whistleblowers are protected from surveillance;
  • Discuss the right to anonymity;
  • Clarify the scope and limits on protection to personal honour and reputation.