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Rights groups urge UN to adopt resolution against unlawful surveillance

Five human rights groups urged the UN General Assembly on Thursday to adopt a resolution [text, PDF] protecting the right of privacy against unlawful surveillance. In a letter to the assembly, the groups, Amnesty International, Access, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Privacy International and Human Rights Watch [advocacy websites], claimed [letter] that "indiscriminate mass surveillance" infringes on the rights of private citizens and undermines the "social contract we all have with the State." The letter noted that the resolution's adoption would be the first major statement by the UN on the issue of privacy in the last 25 years. The resolution was introduced and co-sponsored by Brazil and Germany, and despite reports of dilution of terms at the request of the US, the final draft of the resolution retained provisions declaring that a right to privacy is equally protective regardless of citizenship. Opposition to the resolution reportedly came primarily from the United States, Britain and Australia. The resolution is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, but unless a member state requests a vote it will pass automatically by consensus.

The focus on protection against surveillance comes largely as a result of revelations [JURIST backgrounder] by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who allegedly leaked classified documents earlier this year exposing the scope and breadth of NSA surveillance activities. One of the first challenges to NSA activities came in June, when the ACLU filed suit [JURIST report] against them in federal court just days after Snowden claimed responsibility for the leaks. As the outcry over the revelations began to expand in scope and severity, several other human rights groups decided to sue as well. The following month both the EFF and the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed suit alleging [JURIST reports] similar claims, on the behalf of a coalition of nineteen separate organizations. In August, the UN announced [JURIST report] that it would be inquiring into United States surveillance activities, specifically reports indicating the NSA had hacked internal UN communications. EU officials expressed concern [JURIST report] in October that NSA surveillance could have a counterintuitive impact on the fight against terrorism, due to the increased distrust of the US in light of the revelations. On November 1, Brazil and Germany proposed [JURIST report] their draft resolution on the issue to the General Assembly, which does not specifically target any nation but rather seeks to increase protections against any unreasonable surveillance, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or the targets.

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