Safeguard privacy while countering terrorism, says Special Rapporteur

UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Martin Scheinin, in his latest report to the Human Rights Council expresses concern over the erosion of the right to privacy while countering terrorism.

Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism Martin Scheinin, at a past press conference -OHCHR PhotoScheinin critically assesses developments that have used the justification of combating terrorism and have adversely affected the right to privacy in various parts of the world. These include racial or ethnic profiling, creation of privacy-intrusive databases and resorting to new technology, such as body scanners, without proper human rights assessment.

“Once an individual is being formally investigated or screened by a security agency, personal information is shared among security agencies for reasons of countering terrorism and the right to privacy is almost automatically affected. These are situations where States have a legitimate power to limit the right to privacy under international human rights law”, writes Scheinin in his report. “However, countering terrorism is not a trump card which automatically legitimates any interference with the right to privacy. Every instance of interference needs to be subject to critical assessment.”

Customarily, countries have signed legal assistance treaties in order to cooperate in investigations and share information in specific cases. The Special Rapporteur is concerned that sharing of information has now become the rule. States have not only increased their cooperation among themselves but also with private third parties such as banks, telephone companies or cybercafés, that collect personal data on individuals in order to identify and monitor terrorist suspects. Furthermore, by not extending domestic privacy safeguards to their cooperation with third countries and private entities, some Governments have minimized the protection of the right to privacy.

Based on his evaluation, the UN independent expert dismisses the perception that, in an all-encompassing process of “balancing”, countering terrorism always outweighs respect for privacy. Instead, he calls for a rigorous analytical framework to ensure that any restrictions on privacy rights are necessary, proportionate and adequately regulated.
One of his main recommendations is that the Human Rights Council “should launch a process aiming at a global declaration on data protection and data privacy.”
Article 17 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically deals with the human right to privacy. The Special Rapporteur encourages the Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body overseeing compliance with the Covenant, to consider drawing up a general comment on the right to privacy, including the proper scope of its limitations.

Scheinin will present his report to the Human Rights Council at its 13th session in Geneva, from 1 to 26 March 2010.

24 February 2010