* UN issues report on "Right to Privacy in the Digital Age"
* Rights chief says Snowden opened debate in public interest
* Says British emergency data law is hard to justify
By Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles
GENEVA, July 16 The top U.N. human rights
official suggested on Wednesday the United States should abandon
its efforts to prosecute Edward Snowden, saying his revelations
of massive state surveillance had been in the public interest.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay credited
Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, with
opening a global debate which has led to calls for the
curtailing of state powers to snoop on citizens online and store
"Those who disclose human rights violations should be
protected, we need them," Pillay told a news conference.
"I see some of it here in the case of Snowden, because his
revelations go to the core of what we are saying about the need
for transparency, the need for consultation," she said. "We owe
a great deal to him for revealing this kind of information."
The United States has filed espionage charges against
Snowden, charging him with theft of government property,
unauthorised communication of national defence information and
wilful communication of classified communications intelligence
to an unauthorised person.
Pillay declined to be drawn on whether U.S. President Barack
Obama should pardon Snowden, saying he had not yet been
"As a former judge I know that if he is facing judicial
proceedings we should wait for that outcome," she said. But she
added that Snowden should be seen as a "human rights defender".
"I am raising right here some very important arguments that
could be raised on his behalf so that these criminal proceedings
are averted," she said.
Pillay was speaking after issuing a report on government
surveillance, "The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age", which
says governments must accept stronger checks on their data
surveillance powers and companies must do more to stand up to
their demands for data.
Revelations of mass U.S. surveillance based on documents
leaked by Snowden sparked outrage in U.S. allies including
Germany, Brazil and Mexico. He has sought asylum in Russia.
The leaked documents revealed massive programmes run by the
NSA that gathered information on emails, phone calls and
Internet use by hundreds of millions of Americans.
Mona Rishmawi, head of the rule of law branch of Pillay's
office, said: "In this particular case the way we see the
situation of Snowden is he really revealed information which is
very, very important for human rights.
"We would like this to be taken into account in assessing
his situation," Rishmawi said.
All branches of government must be involved in the oversight
of surveillance programmes, and completely independent civilian
institutions must also monitor surveillance, Pillay says in her
report. Checks on government must also be clearly understandable
by the public.
The report, which will be debated at the U.N. General
Assembly later this year, says any collection of communications
data or metadata is potentially a breach of privacy.
Governments often force Internet and telecoms firms to store
metadata about their customers, which was neither necessary nor
proportionate, Pillay said, and companies should always be ready
to challenge government requests.
"This can mean interpreting government demands as narrowly
as possible or seeking clarification from a government with
regard to the scope and legal foundation for the demand,
requiring a court order before meeting government requests for
data and communicating transparently with users about risks and
compliance with government demands," she told reporters.
She added: "I would say there are serious questions over the
extent to which consumers are truly aware of what data they are
sharing how, and with whom, and to what use they will be put.
"And for how long is this data going to be out there. I
would say that the same rights that people have offline must be
An emergency data collection law being rushed through the
British parliament may not address concerns raised by the
European Court of Justice and is difficult to justify, Pillay
(Editing by Andrew Roche)