Two of the United Nations’ leading human rights personnel have called on the UK government to provide further information concerning the nine-hour detention of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport, London.
Mr. Miranda, a Brazilian national, is the partner of The Guardian newspaper’s Glenn Greenwald, the journalist most closely associated with breaking stories concerning secret National Security Agency data leaked by former NSA consultant Edward Snowden. For the moment, Snowden has been granted temporary political asylum in Russia, having first fled the US for Hong Kong before taking a flight to Moscow Airport.
David Miranda was en route from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro, in transit at Heathrow Airport, when he was held by UK authorities and questioned for nine hours, the maximum permitted under schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000.
Miranda was subsequently released to continue his journey home to Brazil but UK authorities seized a quantity of electronic equipment in his possession, including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.
In moves related to The Guardian’s Snowden revelations, members of the UK’s Secret Service attended at the offices of The Guardian in London demanding and subsequently overseeing the destruction of computer hard drives which allegedly contained NSA data and files leaked to the newspaper by Edward Snowden.
On Wednesday this week, Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, commented, “The protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violations,” stressing, “The press plays a central role in the clarification of human rights abuses.”
Mr. La Rue continued, “It is clear that the revelations on the extensive mass surveillance initiatives implemented by some Governments needs to be widely debated. The intimidation of journalists and newspapers questioning alleged abuses by intelligence bodies is certainly not a contribution to the open debate that needs to take place.”
Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, supported Mr. La Rue’s remarks, adding that current assessments of the terrorism threat in Great Britain have changed significantly in profile over the past three years. Mr. Emmerson said, “There should now be a debate on the extent to which the public is prepared to tolerate official access to metadata.”
Mr. Emmerson continued, “The powers used in this case are currently under challenge in the European Court of Human Rights."
Calling on the UK government to re-examine its existing counterterrorism legislation, Mr. Emmerson said, “I urge the British authorities to review their operations to ensure that they comply fully with the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the right to liberty and security, and the right to respect for private and family life.”
Stressing the importance of journalistic freedom and that the rights of journalists carrying out investigative reporting are protected, Mr. Emmerson concluded, “Under no circumstances, journalists, members of the media, or civil society organizations who have access to classified information on an alleged violation of human rights should be subjected to intimidation and subsequent punishment.”
Mr. Emmerson’s remarks will be particularly embarrassing to the coalition UK government led by Prime Minister David Cameron which maintains UK police were within their rights and had operational discretion to detain Miranda at Heathrow. As well as serving under the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in an individual capacity, Mr. Emmerson is also a highly respected senior lawyer (Q.C.) in the UK with more than 25 years of experience in international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law.
The UN special rapporteurs’ views on the recent Miranda incident reflect grave concerns within the UN’s Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights concerning the zealous use of mass surveillance all over the globe, as set out in a UNHCHR report on the subject published April 2013 (PDF).
The earlier report noted, “Concerns about national security and criminal activity may justify the exceptional use of communications surveillance technologies. However, national laws regulating what would constitute the necessary, legitimate and proportional State involvement in communications surveillance are often inadequate or non-existent. Inadequate national legal frameworks create a fertile ground for arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the right to privacy in communications and, consequently, also threaten the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”