US: Respect Privacy at Home, Abroad

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UN Rights Body Concerned Over Surveillance Activities, Other Issues
  • United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the 25th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva March 3, 2014.

    © 2014 Reuters/Denis Balibouse.

The US insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees.

Andrea Prasow, senior US national security counsel and advocate

(Washington, DC) – The United States should heed calls issued on March 27, 2014, by an important UN human rights body to ensure that its surveillance activities are consistent with the right to privacy, both within and outside its borders, Human Rights Watch said today.

The UN Human Rights Committee today issued its concluding observations after reviewing the US record on compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty the US ratified in 1992. The conclusions address a wide range of serious human rights problems in the US, but the findings on surveillance are notable, as they are the committee’s first statement on the extent to which privacy rights are affected by widespread communications surveillance.

“The US insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees,” said Andrea Prasow, senior US national security counsel and advocate for Human Rights Watch, who attended the periodic review in Geneva. “It’s time for the US to recognize that people outside the country have just as much right to have their privacy respected as those inside the US, and that any surveillance must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim.”

The committee called on the US to ensure that its surveillance activities complied with its obligations to respect privacy rights set forth in article 17 of the ICCPR, regardless of the nationality or location of individuals being monitored. It also expressed concern over the lack of transparency in US laws and court rulings governing surveillance. It urged the US to reform its system of oversight of surveillance to protect the rights of those affected, to refrain from imposing mandatory data retention by third parties, and to ensure that affected persons have access to effective remedies in the case of abuse.

Human Rights Watch noted that the committee also made important recommendations regarding other US national security policies and practices, including that the US government declassify a detailed report by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the CIA’s torture program, revisit legal justifications for the United States’ targeted killing program – particularly using drones, and end the current system of indefinite detention without charge or trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The committee also addressed serious problems with regard to the rights of immigrants, women, and indigenous peoples.

Many of the committee’s conclusions focused on abuses in the US criminal justice system, such as the prolonged use of solitary confinement – including for juveniles, the criminalization of homelessness, the continued use of the death penalty, and the disenfranchisement of felons. The committee also called on the US to prohibit all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, noting with concern the common US practice of charging juveniles as adults.

The committee noted as a good step the approval of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, but called on the US to ensure that the FSA is applied retroactively. It also urged the US to go further in reducing racial disparities in sentencing – including by reforming mandatory minimum sentencing statutes – a measure Human Rights Watch has long recommended.

“All too often, mandatory minimum sentencing statutes in the US result in sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the offense,” said Prasow. “It’s well past time for Congress and the states to overhaul these unjust, one-size-fits-all sentencing schemes.”

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