UNSC meet: Must protect rights in terror crackdown, says Declaration

At least five delegates at the UNSC Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting — including the US, the UK and the UN Human Rights envoy — Saturday brought up the issue of human rights in the context of the use of emerging technologies against terrorism. At the meeting, the UN Human Rights envoy, Ireland and Norway were among those who flagged the issue of surveillance and privacy and how these could be compromised under the garb of counter-terrorism. The US, meanwhile, condemned the shutting down of communication services through the “excuse” of counter-terrorism.

The Delhi Declaration on Saturday mentioned “human rights” at least eight times and “fundamental freedoms” twice. It called for anchoring the use of counter-terrorism technologies within the human rights framework. “…the Member States must ensure that any measures taken to counter terrorism, including the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes, respect the Charter of the United Nations and comply with their obligations under international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international refugee law, as applicable,” a key paragraph said.

At another point, the declaration said it recognises the efforts of the UN-affiliated Tech Against Terrorism initiative to foster collaboration with representatives of the technology industry, civil society, academia and government to disrupt terrorists’ ability to use the internet in furtherance of terrorist purposes, “while also respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Scott Campbell, Human Rights and Digital Technology Team Leader at the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, raised the issue of “surveillance” and “spyware” tools being used by law-enforcement authorities against dissenting voices in the name of countering terrorism.

“While often justified as having been deployed to combat terrorism and crime, such spyware tools have frequently been used for illegitimate and much broader aims, including to clamp down on critical or dissenting views and on those who express them”, Campbell said. He said they have called for a moratorium on their use and marketing until adequate safeguards are developed and put in place.

“Countering the use of new and emerging technologies to commit acts of terrorism needs to be anchored in human rights law. This is essential not to because of our commitments to uphold rights as a legal and ethical imperative. But because respecting rights and countering terrorism is fundamental to ensuring sustainable and effective efforts to protect our security approaches. To cross these important lines not only violate the law, they undermine efforts to combat terrorism by eroding the trust of the community that are essential to successful prevention and response,” Campbell said. “Demands to filter and block content on social media have been shown to frequently affect minorities and journalists in disproportionate ways.”

Campbell also said that States’ methods to fight terrorism have often been used over vague definitions of terrorism or terrorist acts, and at times have granted extensive executive powers without sufficient safeguard against abuse.

Mass surveillance, often depicted as a necessary counter-terrorism measure, has been a grave problem for many years and seems to be expanding through indiscriminate video and facial recognition surveillance, he said.

The US representative at the Counter-Terrorism Ccommittee said that the US remains proactive in combatting terrorist use of the internet while “respecting freedom of expression consistent with our constitution and our longstanding support for an open, secure, trusted, reliable and interoperable internet”.

The British representative, too, talked about human rights: “As we adapt and evolve our counter-terrorism efforts in line with terrorist misuse of emerging technologies, we must also take a step back and look at the underlying drivers of terrorism. This means we must uphold human rights, good governance, and rule of law.”

Bringing up the issue of surveillance, Ireland’s representative said: “Often, counter-terrorism measures violate human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report on the right to privacy highlighted how hacking tools and mass surveillance of public places, purportedly to counter terrorism, are misused to target journalist, human rights defenders, and political opponents. Human rights violations carried out in the guise of counter terrorism increase radicalisation.”

Norway echoed Ireland on the protection of human rights and privacy. It said freedom of expression must be protected both offline and online.

In July 2021, a global collaborative investigative project revealed that Pegasus, a powerful spyware developed by the Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group, may have been used to potentially target mobile phones of individuals in several countries including India.

In August this year, the Supreme Court took on record the report of the committee appointed by it to investigate allegations that personal communication devices of a range of people, including journalists, civil society activists, politicians etc., were targeted illegally using Pegasus. The apex court committee found no conclusive evidence on the use of the spyware in phones it had examined but noted that the Central Government had “not cooperated” with the panel, then Chief Justice of India N V Ramana had said.

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