UN body urged to take position on export of surveillance material

As the UN Human Rights Council continues its 26th session and a panel discussion is held today on corporate social responsibility, Reporters Without Borders urges the council to promote the adoption of clear and binding rules on online surveillance and censorship.

Businesses sell technology to authoritarian regimes that allows them to carry out large-scale online surveillance of their population. This technology has been and still is used in Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Ethiopia to arrest, imprison and torture. The companies that provide this technology cannot claim to be unaware of this. In a 28 April report, the UN Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises presented the results of a poll of 153 businesses in 39 countries. Asked about their policies on protecting human rights, they mentioned internal mechanisms such as codes of conduct and ethics committees. RWB has nonetheless seen that such measures are not enough to prevent the sale of surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes. Nearly half of the companies that answered the questionnaire said that effective enforcement of national laws would be likely to improve respect for human rights in their business activities (paragraph 45). If there were effective regulation, businesses that export surveillance technology would be forced to suspend trade with countries that use their technology to spy on their citizens, and would be forced to account for the products they have sold. During a forum on “Business and Human Rights” in December 2013, Nobel peace laureate Joseph Stiglitz insisted on the need for a binding international agreement enshrining norms of corporate responsibility that could hold companies accountable for their human rights abuses (page 8).

We must now pass from principles to action.

In a written submission to the Human Rights Council on 26 May (attached), Reporters Without Borders called for an international convention on corporate responsibility and human rights. Such a convention would oblige states to incorporate provisions regulating the export of surveillance technology into national law. They would be also be required to establish effective recourse for individuals who have been the victims of surveillance and the terrible consequences that can result from it (arrest, imprisonment, physical violence and torture). In March 2013, Reporters Without Borders published an “Enemies of the Internet” report on surveillance that identified five countries (Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam) and five businesses (Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys and Blue Coat) as “champions of surveillance.” In April 2013, RWB provided its recommendations on corporate responsibility to the Working Group for its December 2013 session.
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Updated on 25.01.2016