UNITED NATIONS (AP) — After months of reports about U.S. eavesdropping abroad, the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Brazil and Germany to protect the right to privacy against unlawful surveillance in the digital age.
The resolution, which seeks to extend personal privacy rights to all people, followed a series of reports of U.S. eavesdropping on foreign leaders, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that surprised and angered allies.
Brazil's Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota said that the resolution "establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail respective of the medium, and therefore need to be protected online and offline."
It expresses deep concern at "the negative impact" that such surveillance, "in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights."
German Ambassador Peter Wittig asked, "Is the human right to privacy still protected in our digital world? And should everything that it technologically feasible, be allowed?"
The consensus adoption of the resolution shows that it will easily pass the whole General Assembly in December. The resolution has at least 50 co-sponsors in the 193-member world body. General Assembly resolutions aren't legally binding but reflect world opinion and carry political weight.
The United States did not fight the measure after it engaged in lobbying last week with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which comprise the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing group, to dilute some of the draft resolution's language.
The key compromise dropped the contention that the domestic and international interception and collection of communications and personal data, "in particular massive surveillance," may constitute a human rights violation.
U.S. delegate Elizabeth Cousens told the committee that the United States welcomed Brazil and German's sponsorship of the resolution and was pleased to support "privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression."
"Human rights defenders, civil society activists, and ordinary citizens the world over are using the Internet and online resources in new and innovative ways, to protect human dignity, fight against repression, and hold governments - including mine - accountable," she said. "It is imperative that they can use these tools freely without inappropriate censorship and fear of reprisals, to continue their vital work to protect and promote human rights worldwide."
The draft resolution directs the U.N. human rights chief to report to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the protection and promotion of privacy "in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance ... including on a mass scale."
Last week, five major human rights and privacy groups — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access and Privacy International — said this will guarantee that the privacy issue stays on the front burner at the United Nations.
The U.S. has been trying to smooth over tensions with Brazil and Germany over the reported spying.
Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington after classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden showed that the NSA hacked the computer network of Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras and scooped up data on emails and telephone calls flowing through the country.
Merkel and other European leaders expressed anger after reports that the NSA allegedly monitored Merkel's cell phone and swept up millions of French telephone records.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.