UK: Open Letter to Foreign Secretary regarding Surveillance of Rights Groups

UK: Open Letter to Foreign Secretary regarding Surveillance of Rights Groups - Civic Space

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UPDATE: Since this letter was sent, it has been revealed that GCHQ intercepted and retained communications from Amnesty International, and not the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights. 

The email from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal which revealed this made no mention of when or why Amnesty International was spied on, or what was done with the information obtained. The organisation is demanding an independent inquiry into how and why a UK intelligence agency has been spying on human rights organisations.


To the Right Hon Philip Hammond MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Government of the United Kingdom

Re: Surveillance of human rights organisations

Dear Foreign Secretary

We write to you to express our deep concern at the ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal on June 22, 2015, which reveals that the GCHQ carried out surveillance on two important and respected independent international human rights groups illegally.

These two organisations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Legal Resource Centre in South Africa are well known and widely respected in the international human rights movement.

Though the Tribunal found technical violations in the surveillance process our concern lies with the act of the surveillance itself. If the role of surveillance is to protect the public from serious crime and threats to their security, what possible explanation can there be for surveillance of human rights groups – a practice if carried out by other states would attract the criticism of the UK government. Indeed in the FCO Human Rights and Democracy Annual Report of 2014 you, as Foreign Secretary, were quoted as saying “We call on governments around the world to do more to foster the role of civil society in promoting and defending human rights” – a role which the report warns is under threat by governments around the world squeezing the global “civil society space”. Can we suggest that spying on civil society groups seems at odds with fostering the government’s role “in protecting and promoting human rights” as is later stated in the annual report, and further undermines the security of this space?

Two immediate questions arise from this judgment.

Can you explain the rationale for placing human rights organisations under surveillance?

And importantly, at whose request was this surveillance authorised – which government department or foreign government requested that the surveillance take place and to what effect?

We would appreciate an early answer to these questions.

We, the undersigned, endorse the above open letter to the UK Foreign Secretary regarding GCHQ’s surveillance of human rights groups.


Amnesty International

Privacy International

Big Brother Watch


Open Rights Group

Electronic Frontier Foundation


Global Partners Digital

Internet Rights and Principles Coalition

The World Wide Web Foundation

Association for Progressive Communications

Public Knowledge, USA

Bolo Bhi, Pakistan

Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), South Korea

Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communications (BNNRC), Bangladesh

ICT Watch, Indonesia

Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet)

OpenMedia, Canada

Dataskydd.NET Sverige, Sweden

Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya)


Derechos Digitales, Chile

Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles (ADC)

Digital Defenders Partners, Ukraine

Global Geneva, Switzerland

Australian Privacy Foundation

Instituto Bem Estar Brasil

Internet Policy Observatory, Pakistan

ACI-Participa, Honduras

Privacy and Access Council of Canada