Flaw In Human Rights Uncovered

Proposals for a new definition of human rights now before the European Parliament would ban ECHELON and update data protection rules to latest developments in telecommunications technology.

International spying on communications should be identified as a breach of fundamental human rights, according to proposals now before the European Parliament. The new proposals suggest that treaties and rules on human rights drawn up 50 years ago or more failed to anticipate how, in the Internet age, threats to personal privacy can easily cross international boundaries.

According to the five page proposal, all future interceptions must "have a legal basis, be in the public interest and be strictly limited to the achievement of the intended objective".

"Any form of systematic interception cannot be regarded as consistent with that principle, even if the intended aim is to fight against international crime".

"Any Member State operating such a system should cease to use it".

If implemented internationally, the new extension of human rights would outlaw the practice of signals intelligence (sigint), except when used to fight crime or terrorism. Sigint systems are now used by many large countries to spy on the diplomatic, commercial and personal communications of allies as well as enemies. The proposals are likely to be particularly bitterly fought by the British government, whose sigint agency GCHQ co-operates with the US National Security Agency to run the world's largest communications intelligence system, including ECHELON.

MEPs will be asked to endorse proposals intended to eliminate cross-border spying between European nations as well as by nations outside the Union. The plans follow two recent parliamentary discussions about international communications surveillance, and in particular the US-run Echelon network, which collects phone call, fax and data communications from satellite communications links.

According to proposals prepared by Graham Watson, chairman of the EP Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs, the existing framework of human rights is defective. They "fall short of what the citizens of Europe are entitled to expect, since they do not protect them from interceptions carried out by a Member State of which they are not nationals".

"European citizens, irrespective of their nationality, are guaranteed fundamental rights at the highest possible level", Watson asserts.

If the resolution is passed by the full Parliament at a meeting in Strasbourg later this month, the EU's president will be told that there is an "urgent need" for the Council "to take ... necessary diplomatic steps to prevent third countries from carrying out any form of interception on the territory of the Union outside the framework of the joint fight against organised crime". The President will be asked to commence diplomatic negotiations with the United States and other countries "to put an end to all forms of systematic and general espionage by third countries vis-à-vis the activities of the Member States of the Union, its institutions and its citizens".

It adds "even in the case of the fight against cross-border crime, adequate safeguards governing interceptions should be drawn up" and that "any form of interception by a Member State should be notified to the Member States on whose territory the persons whose communications are being intercepted are present".

The resolution also expresses irritation with "the current piecemeal nature of the relevant laws and operational and organisational arrangements" affecting interception in Europe. The "piecemeal arrangements" include Schengen, Europol, and the Customs Convention. According to Watson, these entail "different standards of protection" and are "free of any real democratic and judicial scrutiny". Six of 15 EU states had also failed to comply with the EC directives on data protection and on the privacy of telecommunications data.

The Committee also complains that the problems have been raised in the "numerous written and oral questions tabled on this subject over the last two years".

The proposals follow a two day hearing on data protection and surveillance, held in Brussels in February, and statements made to the Parliament by the EC and Council of Ministers at the end of March.

The Citizens Rights' Committee president is also presenting the lack of formal international communications and data privacy as a global problem. "On a world-wide scale, the rise of the information society has not been accompanied by a corresponding revision of provisions on data protection by the Council of Europe, the OECD and the WTO", he says. The proposals call for UN guidelines on personal data and OECD guidelines on privacy to be "given the status of binding texts - at the very least between the States of the Union and their allies".

The new proposals do not include the appointment of a special Committee of Enquiry by the European Parliament, a proposal put forward last month by the Green Parties and their allies. Such a committee might have been limited to looking at breaches of existing European community law. Instead, Watson has asked that his and two other committees be asked to prepare, by the end of the year a new and detailed report on the problem of data protection and interceptions. (Duncan Campbell )