A hypocritical game is being played by the United States at the United Nations General Assembly this week, as Germany and Brazil put forward another resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age. Just like last year, the US is all for it—provided it can strong arm other countries to cut out any provision that suggests its own practice of mass interception of communications is a human rights problem.
A key issue is whether countries have any obligation to respect the rights of people outside their borders. This isn’t a question that comes up every day, because normally a foreign government isn’t in a position to protect your rights—that’s the job of your own country. But in our globe-trotting, interconnected world, it arises more often than before.
Under international law, all people everywhere are entitled to the same human rights. A state that gains effective control over you or your freedom has the duty to protect you and your rights. Simple, no?
Yet it has taken years for the US government to come around to acknowledging that permitting torture and mistreatment of the Abu Ghraib style is not only un-American and morally wrong, but a violation of US obligations under international law. It did so today, grudgingly, in its response to the UN Committee Against Torture, conceding at long last that in places it controls “as a governmental authority” such as Guantanamo, it is bound by international law not to ill-treat or torture detainees. That’s short of what’s required—mistreatment is unlawful wherever a government has “effective control” over a person, regardless of whether it has “governmental authority.” But it’s a tiny step out of the exceptionalist hole the US has dug itself into.
It’s time for the US to climb out of this hole at the General Assembly, too. There’s not much left to privacy when any foreign government can spy on your every phone call and email with impunity. Collecting signals wholesale from undersea cables effectively deprives millions of people of their rights. Although governments claim they do this to combat terrorism, there is little evidence of tangible benefits beyond what they get from more targeted surveillance, and plenty of diplomatic damage.
Why passionately fight on this issue when even President Obama says the US should be more respectful of the privacy of allied nations? If the US can admit it just may have some duties with regard to a few foreigners it physically captures abroad, perhaps it can admit it also has some duties with regard to the millions of foreigners whose communications it captures virtually.