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21 nations line up behind U.N. effort to restrain NSA

October 27, 2013

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — An effort in the United Nations by Brazil and Germany to hold back government surveillance is quickly picking up steam, as the uproar over U.S. eavesdropping grows.

The German and Brazilian delegations to the U.N. have opened talks with diplomats from 19 more countries to draft a General Resolution promoting the right of privacy on the Internet. Close U.S. allies like France and Mexico — as well as rivals like Cuba and Venezuela — are all part of the effort.

The push marks the first major international effort to curb the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance network. Its momentum is building. And it comes as concerns are growing within the U.S. intelligence community that the NSA may be, in effect, freelancing foreign policy by eavesdropping on leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel.

The draft, a copy of which was obtained by FP, calls on states “to respect and ensure the respect for the rights” to privacy, as enshrined in the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also calls on states “to take measures to put an end to violations of these rights” and to “review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the extraterritorial surveillance of private communications and interception of personal data of citizens in foreign jurisdictions with a view towards upholding the right to privacy.”

The draft does not refer to a flurry of U.S. spying revelations that have caused a political uproar around the world. But it was clear that the revelations provided the political momentum to trigger the move to the U.N.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department responded to questions concerning FP’s initial report about the U.N. effort published Thursday.

“We’ll of course review that when the text is available,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, speaking of Germany and Brazil’s draft.”

“It’s not something you’re opposed to in principle?” a reporter asked.

“No,” said Psaki. “Our U.N. mission in New York will review the text as usual.”

The NSA has reportedly monitored communications of up to three dozen world leaders and accessed the emails of the president of Mexico.

The draft appears designed to provide oversight of those types of incursions — as well as surveillance incursions of average citizens worldwide. It requests that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights report to the U.N. General Assembly twice in the next two years on “human rights and indiscriminate surveillance” with “views and recommendations” aimed at “identifying and clarifying principles, standards and best practices on the implications for human rights of indiscriminate surveillance.”

The State Department said Friday that the U.S. initiated a review of its surveillance practices in order to “balance security needs with privacy concerns.” However, it’s already clear that even individuals in the intelligence community are concerned that NSA activities have gone beyond the pale.

Former intelligence officials tell FP they are concerned that NSA officials have been deciding on their own which foreign leaders to “target,” or collect information about. “We’re targeting these leaders. Who’s making these political decisions? [NSA director] Gen. [Keith] Alexander or one of his subordinates?” said a former senior intelligence official. “If so, he is getting to make decisions that have wider impact on international relations.”

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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