UN special rapporteurs call for surveillance tech moratorium

by Joseph K. Clark

United Nations (UN) human rights experts have called on all states to impose a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of “life-threatening” surveillance technologies, at least until there are guarantees it can be used in full compliance with international human rights standards.

The call for a moratorium follows Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s exposure of how the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used to conduct widespread surveillance of hundreds of mobile devices, including those of human rights defenders, journalists, and political leaders.

The experts include Irene Khan, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Clement Nyaletsossi Voulé, special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, among others, sat on the UN’s Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

They warned in a statement that it’s “hazardous and irresponsible” to allow the surveillance technology sector to become a “human rights-free zone”.

They added that “such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and liberty, possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security, and international cooperation.”

In May 2019, David Kaye, the then UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, published a damning report, which recommended placing an immediate moratorium on the use, transfer, and sale of surveillance tools until international regulations incorporate human rights safeguards were adopted.


Presenting his findings to the 41st UN Human Rights Council session on 26 June 2019, Kaye described the international situation as a “surveillance free-for-all in which states and industry are collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals worldwide”.

UN member states, however, ended up sidestepping Kaye’s call for a moratorium between governments and the private sector, instead opting to commission a report looking at the technology’s impact on human rights.

“In recent years, we have repeatedly raised the alarm about the danger that surveillance technology poses to human rights. Once again, we urge the international community to develop a robust regulatory framework to prevent, mitigate and redress the negative human rights impact of surveillance technology and, pending that, to adopt a moratorium on its sale and transfer,” said the UN experts.

“International human rights law requires all states to adopt robust domestic legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy or threats to their freedom of expression, assembly, and association.”

In regards to the conduct of NSO Group and its clients, in particular, the experts added that, given the “extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights” shown by such widespread surveillance, the company must publicly disclose whether it conducted any meaningful human rights due diligence in line with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“We also urge Israel, as the NSO Group’s home country, to disclose fully what measures it took to review NSO export transactions in light of its own human rights obligations,” they added. “States must verify that companies like the NSO Group do not sell or transfer technology to or contract with states and entities that are like to use them to violate human rights.”

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