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Proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty Could Undermine Human Rights

Delegations Should Insist on Civil Society Inclusion and Respect for Rights

U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon


Update: The meeting over the cybercrime treaty has been delayed until May. 

United Nations member states are meeting this week to start a process for a cybercrime treaty. Among its champions are some of the world’s most repressive governments, and the initiative raises serious human rights concerns.  

That Russia proposed this treaty should give UN delegations pause. In recent years, Russia has significantly expanded laws and regulations tightening control over internet infrastructure, online content, and the privacy of communications. A UN cybercrime convention could severely undermine the ability of people to exercise their human rights online, including freedom of expression and freedom of access to information, if it’s modeled after Russia’s domestic approach to internet policy.

The controversial UN resolution that set this process in motion is exceedingly vague in how it defines cybercrime. In many countries, legislation and policies aimed at combating cybercrime use vague and ill-defined terms to criminalize legitimate forms of online expression, association, and assembly. These give wide-ranging power to governments to block websites deemed critical of the authorities, or even entire networks, applications, and services that facilitate online exchange of and access to information.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of governments using vaguely worded and repressive cybercrime laws that restrict rights, including by governments that co-sponsored the resolution, like Egypt, where authorities continue to silence journalists, bloggers, and critics on social media amid escalating use of the country’s repressive 2018 cybercrimes law. Additionally, some initiatives to combat cybercrime, especially those that provide for cross-border access to data in criminal investigations, raise significant privacy, data protection, and due process concerns.

To mitigate these risks, UN delegations should champion civil society participation in person and remotely, webcast meetings, and make all relevant documentation available online. They should also ensure that all efforts to combat cybercrime are guided by states’ existing obligations under international human rights law.

Cybercrime poses a real threat to people’s human rights and livelihoods. But efforts to address it need to protect, not undermine, rights. Delegations should think hard about these risks as they engage in the process and insist on transparency, inclusion, and respect for human rights.

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