UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A draft U.N. resolution that some diplomats said suggested spying in foreign countries could be a human rights violation has been weakened to appease the United States, Britain and others ahead of a vote by a U.N. committee next week.
Germany and Brazil drafted the resolution calling for an end to excessive electronic surveillance. It does not name specific countries but comes after former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden released details of spying by the U.S. National Security Agency.
The U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues, is to vote on the draft next week, and it is then expected to be put to a vote by the 193-nation General Assembly in December.
The initial draft would have had the assembly declare it is “deeply concerned at human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance of communications.”
But the language has been changed to “deeply concerned at the negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights.”
A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the new language as a compromise that “sort of breaks the link between extraterritorial surveillance and human rights violations.”
The final version of the draft was presented to the Third Committee late on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if the United States, Britain and others would support it.
General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, unlike resolutions of the 15-nation Security Council. But assembly resolutions that enjoy broad international support can carry significant moral and political weight.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, called on the General Assembly to approve the draft resolution.
“We are deeply concerned that the countries representing the ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance alliance - the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom - have sought to weaken the resolution at the risk of undercutting their own longstanding public commitment to privacy and free expression,” the groups said in a letter to U.N. states.
The draft resolution notes “that while concerns about public security may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information, States must ensure full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law.”
It calls on states to review procedures, practices and legislation on communications surveillance and “to establish or maintain existing independent, effective domestic oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency, as appropriate, and accountability for State surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data.”
It also asks U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay to present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and the interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both condemned the widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency. Charges that the NSA accessed tens of thousands of French phone records and monitored Merkel’s mobile phone have caused outrage in Europe.
The United States has said it is not monitoring Merkel’s communications and will not do so in the future, but it has not commented on possible past surveillance.
Rousseff canceled a state visit to the United States last month because of reports that the United States had spied on her telephone calls and emails. During an address at the U.N. General Assembly, she denounced it as a violation of human rights and international law.
Also this week relations between Australia and its neighbor Indonesia plunged to their lowest point since the late 1990s over reports Australia’s spies tried to tap the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.
Earlier this month, the United Nations said the United States had pledged not to spy on the world body’s communications after a report the NSA had gained access to the U.N. video conferencing system.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman