Top choice blocked for U.N. digital privacy investigator post

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 03, 2015 5:20 PM

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Estonian picked as the U.N.'s first digital privacy investigator was blocked on Friday by the German president of the Human Rights Council after activist groups said she would not be a strong enough critic of U.S. surveillance.

Katrin Nyman-Metcalf was the candidate ranked first by a "consultative group" of five ambassadors - from Poland, Chile, Greece, Algeria and chaired by Saudi Arabia. But when it came to approving her appointment, Joachim Ruecker said he was over-ruling their choice and proposing the second-ranked candidate instead, Malta's Joseph Cannataci.

"Concerns were raised as to whether she was the best qualified candidate for this position," Ruecker announced, saying he was reflecting the views of Council members, many observer states and civil society stakeholders.

As the first person in the job, the investigator will be able to set the standard for the digital right to privacy, deciding how far to push governments that want to conduct surveillance for security reasons.

Nyman-Metcalf said Estonia was sometimes seen as pro-American, and Ruecker had told her that civil society groups felt she was not "activist" enough.

"It seemed in this criticism that he had received about me, these people who had criticized me wanted somebody to wave a flag for (former U.S. security contractor Edward) Snowden," she said.

Nyman-Metcalf said she also found it bizarre that she had been criticized for saying there was no such thing as total privacy.

"We all see these surveillance scandals and of course that's upsetting, but at the same time there's more and more pressure to do something against terrorism. There are lots of things that are pushing in different directions."

Estonian Ambassador Juri Seilenthal told Reuters that there needed to be privacy guarantees but "terrorists and child pornographers" must not be able to benefit from a right to privacy.

He told the Council that Ruecker had ignored the three criteria for the job - competence, gender balance and regional representation - and Ruecker "just cannot be objective on this."

Germany and Brazil, whose governments were targets of U.S. surveillance, according to Snowden, were the original initiators of the investigator post, approved unanimously by the 47 Council members in March.

Seilenthal told Reuters that it was "total rubbish" to see Nyman-Metcalf as the "U.S. candidate," although revelations of U.S. secrets by Snowden and others such as jailed U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning were "the elephant in the room."

U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper merely said he was disappointed about Ruecker's decision because the Council should support gender balance.

"We take note that the first ranked candidate on the consultative group's list for the special rapporteur on privacy is a highly qualified woman. But she was not selected. That was unfortunate," Harper said.

Cannataci declined to comment.

Both Seilenthal and Nyman-Metcalf said they had no issue with him.

"To be totally honest, in the last few days I've really lost interest because of all these political games, so I was quite relieved with this outcome," Nyman-Metcalf said. "Frankly there was opposition to me and the reasons were found."

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Alan Crosby)