Blog: Human Rights Committee

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August 31, 2015

Has the Human Rights Committee Extended its Reach?

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

This post was originally published July 29, 2015 on Just Security

Last week the UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body created by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to monitor states’ compliance, issued its Concluding Observations (COBs) on the periodic reports of seven states, including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. These most recent statements of concern and recommendations to those states may exhibit an innovation in the committee’s approach to the perennial debate over extraterritorial application of the ICCPR. They suggest a broadened understanding of the concept of “jurisdiction” that links an individual overseas to a state and triggers the state’s ICCPR obligations, although the committee has not clearly articulated or explained the change.

The COBs on France and the United Kingdom both address issues of surveillance of communication, within and outside national territory. The observations on the UK (and a March 2014 COB on the USA) seem to assume that extraterritorial communications surveillance raises privacy issues under article 17 of the Covenant, regardless of the nationality of the parties to the communication. (The COBs for France are less explicit on the latter point.) The committee therefore expresses concern about overbroad and unchecked surveillance practices, and makes a series of recommendations for reform.

If one probes the committee’s assumption that extraterritorial communications surveillance always raises privacy issues under the Covenant, the following question arises: How does the committee explain the relationship between extraterritorial surveillance of foreign nationals and the undertaking of each state party to the ICCPR “to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant,” as article 2(1) of the treaty provides? 

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