UN rights chief urges protection for individuals revealing human rights violations

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. UN Photo/Violaine Martin

12 July 2013 – A senior United Nations official today stressed the need to respect the right to privacy, using the case of United States citizen Edward Snowden to illustrate the urgent need to protect individuals who reveal human rights violations.

“Snowden's case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring respect for the right to privacy,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

“National legal systems must ensure that there are adequate avenues for individuals disclosing violations of human rights to express their concern without fear of reprisals.”

Mr. Snowden is a former National Security Agency contractor in the US who has been charged with leaking details of several secret mass electronic surveillance programmes to the press. According to media reports, he is currently at Moscow airport in Russia and has requested asylum to various countries.

“Without prejudging the validity of any asylum claim by Snowden, I appeal to all States to respect the internationally guaranteed right to seek asylum, in accordance with Article 14 of the Universal Declaration and Article 1 of the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, and to make any such determination in accordance with their international legal obligations,” Ms. Pillay said.

She noted that while concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify the exceptional and narrowly-tailored use of surveillance programmes, “surveillance without adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy actually risk impacting negatively on the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

She also recalled that Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights state that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with one's privacy, family, home or correspondence, and that everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

“People need to be confident that their private communications are not being unduly scrutinized by the State,” she said.

“The right to privacy, the right to access to information and freedom of expression are closely linked .The public has the democratic right to take part in the public affairs and this right cannot be effectively exercised by solely relying on authorized information.”

The former Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Martin Scheinin, has said that “reliable factual information about serious human rights violations by an intelligence agency is most likely to come from within the agency itself. In these cases, the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in non-disclosure. Such whistleblowers should firstly be protected from legal reprisals and disciplinary action when disclosing unauthorized information.”


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