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Last week the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) met in Geneva, Switzerland. US government representatives appeared before this hearing and defended NSA mass surveillance. The hearing was a chance for the US to remedy their failings with regard to human rights. But they insist that they have done nothing wrong.
UN Human Rights Committee Hearing
The UNHRC meets every five years to review the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This covenant was signed and ratified by 74 UN member countries, the US included. A UN panel consisting of 18 members reviews actions that are in violation of the covenant. They pay special attention to any actions that involve human rights abuses.
This year, NSA mass surveillance was one of the issues highlighted during the US review hearing. The panel sat down with the US representatives and discussed the spy program and the agency’s sophisticated spy capabilities. On Friday, the UNHRC expressed that they were troubled by the response of the US. The US representatives interpreted the covenant in a very subjective way. And they used this to defend NSA mass surveillance. The statement released conveyed that the members of the committee disagreed with the meaning that the US representatives read into the covenant. And they concluded that if the covenant were to be interpreted in the same manner by all member countries, then no human rights protection would exist. This shows that the US is twisting the covenant to justify NSA mass surveillance even when it is clear that the covenant would not support these actions.
Reactions to US Representatives Responses
The committee was alarmed as well by how lax the US was in supervising the NSA spy program. They also opened up the issue of the damage caused by NSA mass surveillance overseas. And they were worried about how little the US had done to deal with the harm done. Yet the US representatives insisted that all NSA mass surveillance activities were lawful based on both domestic and international standards. And they firmly added that the activities were strictly supervised. They were adamant despite proof to the contrary. Several documents that were leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show evidence of foul play in both how NSA mass surveillance was carried out and how little the spy program was supervised.
The US representatives reiterated their earlier statement about data gathering under the NSA mass surveillance program. They stated that it was done only for counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence, which are legal in the US. Yet the UN committee questioned the necessity of bulk metadata gathering. They also questioned whether the breadth and depth of NSA mass surveillance was really essential US national security. The US responded by explaining that the spy program was executed for valid reasons and that several levels of oversight were in place. They mentioned the President, Congress and the Court. But this is after the Court admitted that their oversight was perfunctory and members of Congress admitted that they did not fully understand the program from the details released to them. There is an obvious supervision and transparency issue here. And the ACLU presented documentation that shows a lack of real effort by US President Obama to change NSA mass surveillance and data gathering methods to comply with Article 17 of the ICCPR.
The US representatives also explained that NSA mass surveillance was not meant to obstruct freedoms or show prejudice to any foreign nationals. But intent is not an excuse for human rights violations. Human Rights Watch senior national security counsel Andrea Prasow expected the US to come clean at the hearing. She stated that it was an opportunity for them to admit that bulk data gathering through current NSA mass surveillance efforts is a violation of basic human rights. Instead they defended the practice. But the UN will issue a report that is meant to push the US to revamp surveillance policies in accordance with UN guidelines.