On 18 December the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution tabled by Germany and Brazil on protecting online privacy. By doing so, the UN has for the first time reaffirmed the basic principle that human rights apply just as much online as they do offline. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier: “I’m delighted that our initiative (...) was adopted unanimously. Many states and non governmental organisations (NGOs) regard the paper as an important signal in terms of implementing human rights in the digital age.
Impressive response to the joint initiative
[Bild]Following the unanimous adoption of the German Brazilian initiative on the protection of privacy as a human right by the UN General Assembly on 18 December, Foreign Minister Steinmeier was pleased with the “impressive response”, which would provide the incentive “to now pursue this route within the United Nations with all due consequence”.
In the light of the current debate in the US, the German Foreign Minister went on to say:
I believe that something has been set in motion in the United States, too. The group of experts established by President Obama has recognised a need for reform and put forward relevant proposals. I trust that the right and necessary decisions will soon be taken in Washington in order to re adjust the balance between legitimate security interests and the protection of individual privacy.
Equal rights on and offline
Germany’s UN Ambassador Peter Wittig had already stressed during the preceding consultations in the UN Human Rights Committee that the resolution made it clear that “unlawful and arbitrary surveillance” could infringe the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Wittig also declared before the Human Rights Committee: “Through this resolution, the United Nations establishes, for the first time, that the same rights that people enjoy offline also need to be protected online.”
The resolution initiated by Germany and Brazil requires UN member states to verify whether the surveillance they carry out respects human rights. Moreover, it highlights the possible ways in which intelligence services’ spy programmes can breach the law in other countries. Over the course of negotiations over the text, some states had initially taken the stance that international law only obliged them to protect the privacy of citizens of their own territory.
Data protection is still on the agenda
Moreover, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is tasked with drafting a report on the surveillance programmes of intelligence services and privacy protection. This report should then be discussed in detail in the General Assembly and Human Rights Council in Geneva next autumn. Germany and Brazil have thus succeeded in securing a place for the topics of data protection and online privacy on the UN agenda for the foreseeable future.