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U.S. Spying Prompts UN Panel to Review Surveillance

NSA Headquarters
The National Security Agency headquarters stands in Fort Meade, Maryland. Source: NSA via Getty Images

A United Nations panel responded to disclosures of U.S. spying abroad by adopting a resolution expressing concern over the “negative impact” of such surveillance and reaffirming the individual right to privacy.

While the resolution adopted without objection by the human rights committee doesn’t single out the U.S., it was drafted by Brazil and Germany, whose leaders’ communications may have been intercepted by the National Security Agency.

The 193-member General Assembly will vote next month on the document, which calls for a report by next year “on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and collection of personal data.”

The move sends a “political message” that “the right to privacy has to be protected” even though the resolution isn’t legally binding, Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador, told reporters after the resolution’s adoption.

Germany and Brazil teamed up on the resolution after top-secret documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, a former NSA consultant, indicated the agency had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone and eavesdropped on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s private communications.

The language adopted today was softened to reflect objections by the U.S. and U.K. that there is no universal right to privacy, only individual privacy rights in each country.

U.S. Response

Several references in an early draft referencing “illegal surveillance” were replaced with “unlawful or arbitrary surveillance.”

The U.S. joins Germany and Brazil in affirming rights to privacy and freedom of expression, “pillars of our democracy,” Elizabeth Cousens, a U.S. delegate to the General Assembly, told the committee before the resolution’s adoption.

“In some cases, conduct that violates privacy rights may also seriously impede or even prevent the exercise of freedom of expression, but conduct that violates privacy rights does not violate the right to freedom of expression in every case,” Cousens said.

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