April 27, 2016
Shining a Light on the Right to Privacy: Surveillance in Venezuela and Zimbabwe
Since the 2013 Snowden revelations, media and civil society groups have closely scrutinized U.S. surveillance and intelligence sector law and policy, generating wide-ranging domestic and international debates on privacy, security, and the limits of state power. Less scrutinized, however, are the surveillance and intelligence sector policies and practices of countries that wield little international influence, but whose governments exercise significant control over citizens’ ability to communicate privately and speak freely.
Two such countries, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, are the subject of reports the International Human Rights Clinic and its partners recently submitted to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The joint reports document serious challenges to the right to privacy in both countries, including inadequate legal and policy frameworks on surveillance and intelligence gathering that are compounded by the absence of a strong and independent judiciary. These reports will ultimately help the United Nations Human Rights Council evaluate the human rights situation in both countries through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
The Clinic report on Venezuela, co-authored with Privacy International and Venezuelan non-profit Acceso Libre, notes a number of concerning developments since the country’s human rights situation was last assessed through the UPR in 2011: for example, the government has encouraged the emergence of “patriotas cooperantes” (cooperating patriots), anonymous informers who feed information to government officials about the activities of perceived government opponents. In a striking example of this practice, in February 2016 Reuters reported on the case of Rodolfo Gonzalez, who was arrested in April 2014 by intelligence agents and accused of masterminding protests against Venezuela’s President. The arrest was allegedly based on an audio recording provided by a cooperating patriot, in which Gonzalez discussed “destabilising actions” against the government. For nearly a year, Gonzalez was held in a facility operated by Venezuela’s major civilian intelligence agency while he waited for trial; he hanged himself in March 2015.
Similarly, in Zimbabwe, although the country’s new constitution (enacted in 2013) explicitly protects the right to privacy, the Clinic report, co-authored with Privacy International, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and the Digital Society of Zimbabwe, finds this promise has not translated into protection for privacy in law or practice since Zimbabwe’s last review through the UPR in 2011. Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, presides over a notoriously partisan and secretive intelligence sector that is virtually unconstrained by law. Government officials have, in fact, boasted about the intelligence sector’s vast and unchecked surveillance capabilities: in 2014, a senior government Minister stated that the government “sees everything . . . No-one can hide from us in this country,” adding, “we will visit your bedrooms and expose what you will be doing.” Leaked documents released by Al Jazeera last year showed that Zimbabwe’s most significant intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation, developed a “joint action plan” in 2011 with a South African intelligence agency that included as one of its objectives “to monitor activities aimed at subverting [the] constitutional order,” a task that involved the “identification, profiling, and assessment of NGOs engaged in subversive activities.”
The Clinic reports also find that the laws governing communications surveillance in Venezuela and Zimbabwe fall short of international human rights standards articulated in the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, principles developed primarily by a coalition of civil society organizations, including Privacy International, in 2013. Additionally, the reports note the establishment of extensive databases containing personal information and a variety of other data collection activities that threaten the right to privacy in both countries. For example, both countries require cellphone companies to collect an array of personal information about their customers and the communications flowing through their networks, measures that are becoming commonplace across the globe, but which facilitate surveillance and undermine individuals’ ability to communicate anonymously.
In their reports, the Clinic and its partners offer a variety of recommendations, including, in both countries, to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and reform the legal frameworks governing surveillance and the intelligence sector. Venezuela and Zimbabwe will be reviewed through the UPR in Fall 2016.
Note: Fabiana Pardi Otamendi, LL.M ’16, Josiah Kollmeyer, JD ’17, Amanda MacFarlane, JD ’17, and MacKennan Graziano, JD ’17, worked on the reports in the Clinic in Fall 2015.