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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 30, July 13, 2013

Edward Snowden’s Case and UN’s Shame

Tuesday 16 July 2013

by Suhas Chakma

As the United States continues its relentless campaign to block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum that went to the extent of disgraceful denial of air-space to President of Bolivia Evo Morales by France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue and UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Ms Margaret Sekaggya preferred to remain silent on the safety, security and the right to freedom of opinion and expression of Snowden. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, too remained silent while protection of the refugees is the foremost mandate of the UNHCR. Many governments, including those which have questioned the United States’ policy of snooping, have succumbed to the pressure of the United States not to grant asylum to Snowden. Individuals holding the mandate of the United Nations on protection and promotion of human rights ought to speak up. Their silence is highly deplorable.

Regrettably, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while speaking to a gathering of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Icelandic parliament in Reykjavik on July 2, 2013, reportedly stated that “the Snowden case is something I consider to be misuse… . the opening up of digital communications should not be misused in such a way as Snowden did.”1 Earlier Ban Ki-moon, contrary to the numerous resolutions of the United Nations calling for universal abolition of death penalty, while justifying the execution of Saddam Hussain, stated on January 2, 2007: “Saddam Hussein was responsible for committing heinous crimes and unspeakable atrocities against the Iraqi people. … We should never forget the victims of his crimes. The issue of capital punishment is for each and every Member State to decide.”2 Six years later, Ban has ostensibly not broadened his perspectives/understanding on human rights issues in line with the UN human rights standards; and this has been a major challenge for the United Nations since Ban took over as the Secretary-General.

The Rright to Privacy is a Human Right

The right to privacy is recognised under Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The right to privacy is protected by laws in most countries in Europe. Further, in countries governed by the rule of law, snooping cannot be done without authorisation. Snowden exposed massive violations of the right to privacy under a variety of classified intelligence programmes of the United States including the interception of telephone metadata, PRISM and Tempora Internet surveillance etc. The Director of National Intelligence of the United States, James Clapper, had effectively lied before the US Senate Intelligence Committee on March 12, 2013 on the snooping of US citizens and he has since apologised for the lies, euphemistically called “erroneous answer”.3 President Barack Obama sought to justify snooping on the ground that all countries do it. President Obama failed to realise that two wrongs do not make one right.

Obama Continues to Set Wrong Examples on Rights

President Barack Obama, because of his oratorical skills and multi-cultural background, has so far managed to get away despite continuation of the policies of the Bush Administration, notably the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and the indiscriminate use of drones in clear violations of international human rights and standards of humanitarian law.

Indeed, the Obama Administration has stooped to a new low at the national level.

Under the Obama Administration, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeted the Republican tea parties. President Obama did censure the IRS but such witch-hunting is not expected in the United States. It smacks of the Third World political vendetta.

The United States, which in the last few months expressed serious concerns about Russia targeting the civil liberties activists under the foreign agents law, had indeed invoked the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 of the United States against Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri lobbyist for receiving funds from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It is not that Fai working with the Pakistani authorities, including the ISI, and receiving funds from them was unknown to the US authorities but it decided to act in a particular context of tension between Pakistan and the United States.

The snooping on citizens and non-citizens across the world by the United States has reduced each and every person to a suspect of terror. This snooping will have serious impact on another important issue: the International Telecommunication Union Treaty agreed at the World Conference on International Telecommu-nications organised by the International Tele-communications Union (ITU) in Dubai in December 2012 in which the ITU was given the responsibility to govern the internet. The United States led 20 other countries, mainly from Europe, to reject the treaty on the ground that it will harm internet freedom. Earlier in a rare point of bipartisan accord, the House of Representatives of the US unanimously approved a resolution on December 5, 2012 which reaffirmed that “the consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States [is] to promote a global Internet free from government control”.4

However, given that the United States is abusing the current internet standards under which domain names are handled by the US-based ICANN, IETF, W3C, etc., can the current system/standards be held as reliable? On the other hand, can the United Nations, which is headed by a Secretary-General whose understanding of human rights and fundamental freedom is zilch, and member-states of the ITU, who espoused the International Telecommunication Union Treaty but refused reference to the human rights standards, be relied upon? More discussion could be held before the scheduled effective date for the treaty in January 2015. At the Joint EU-American discussions to be held on the collection and oversight of intelligence, and questions of privacy and data protection starting on July 8, 2013, the issue of internet governance ought to be addressed.

In the meantime, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Ms Margaret Sekaggya must condemn the United States’ relentless hunting down of Snowden while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, must take necessary measures to protect Snowden who is being held up at Moscow airport after the United States made him stateless.

It ought to be borne in mind that Snowden has neither harmed anybody nor put anybody at risk except exposing acts of the American spooks which are illegal even under the US laws.


1. Edward Snowden’s digital ‘misuse’ has created problems, says Ban Ki-moon, The Guardian, July 3, 2013; available at

2. Ban Ki-moon takes over as UN Secretary-General, calls for common action to face crises, UN News Centre, January 2, 2007; available at

3. Clapper: I gave ‘erroneous’ answer because I forgot about Patriot Act, The Guardian, July 2, 2013; available at

4. UN summit implodes as US, others spurn Internet treaty, CNET, December 13, 2012; available at

The author is the Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights which has Special Consultative Status with the UN ECOSOC.

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