UN calls for urgent reform of UK surveillance laws

“These are the sorts of concerns you’d expect to hear raised about countries that don’t care about human rights. It’s quite right the UN has taken the UK to task.” – Rachel Logan

Amnesty International has welcomed recommendations from the United Nations Human Rights Committee that the UK government should reform its surveillance laws and ensure that any interference with private communication is authorised by a comprehensive, clear and publicly accessible set of rules, as well as being necessary and proportionate. 

The recommendations came in the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee, published today, after it had scrutinised the human rights record of the UK government. Amnesty gave evidence to the committee, raising in particular its concerns about UK surveillance practices and recent revelations that Amnesty’s own private communications had been intercepted and accessed by the UK authorities. The committee expressed particular concern about this revelation.

Rachel Logan, Amnesty UK’s Legal Programme Director, said:

 “The UN has now joined the chorus of voices calling for an urgent overhaul of the UK’s inadequate surveillance laws and it’s hardly surprising. Almost every week some new illegality around UK surveillance is brought to light.

“The report reads like a check list of inadequacies: Over-broad rules, a serious lack of safeguards, no judicial oversight, and now we know they’re snooping on groups like Amnesty.

“These are the sorts of concerns you’d expect to hear raised about countries that don’t care about human rights.

 “It’s quite right the UN has taken the UK to task.”

The UN Committee also questioned the UK government’s plans replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, warning that there should be no roll-back on the human rights protections already in place in the UK.  It also challenged the adequacy of the Intelligence and Security Committee to investigate allegations of UK complicity in the torture of detainees overseas, given concerns about its lack of independence from the executive power and the ability of the government to withhold sensitive information from it.


Extract from the Human Rights Committees’ concluding observations

Government surveillance and interception of communications

24.       The Committee is concerned that the State party’s current legal regime governing the interception of communications and communication data allows for mass interception of communications and lacks sufficient safeguards against arbitrary interference with the right to privacy. It notes, inter alia, reports that Amnesty International’s email communication had been intercepted by the government under a general warrant.  The Committee is concerned: (a) that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), that makes a distinction between “internal” and “external” communications, provides for untargeted warrants for the interception of external private communication and communication data which are sent or received outside the United Kingdom without affording the same safeguards as in the case of interception of internal communications; (b) about the lack of sufficient safeguards for obtaining private communications from foreign security agencies and for sharing personal communications data with such agencies. The Committee is further concerned that the 2014 Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act provides for wide powers of retention of communication data and access to such data does not appear to be limited to the most serious crimes (arts. 2, 17, 19 and 26).

The State party should:

            (a)        Review the regime regulating the interception of personal communications and retention of communication data, taking also into account the recommendations made by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament and the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, with a view to ensuring that such activities, both within and outside the State party, conform to its obligations under the Covenant, including article 17. In particular, measures should be taken to ensure that any interference with the right to privacy complies with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity, regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals whose communications are under direct surveillance;

            (b)        Ensure that any interference with the right to privacy, family, home or correspondence is authorized by laws that: (i) are publicly accessible; (ii) contain provisions that ensure that collection of, access to and use of communications data are tailored to specific legitimate aims; (iii) are sufficiently precise and specify in detail the precise circumstances in which any such interference may be permitted, the procedures for authorization, the categories of persons who may be placed under surveillance, the limit on the duration of surveillance; procedures for the use and storage of data collected; and (iv) provide for effective safeguards against abuse;

            (c)        Ensure that robust oversight systems over surveillance, interception and intelligence-sharing of personal communications activities are in place, including by providing for judicial involvement in the authorization of such measures in all cases, and considering the establishment of strong and independent oversight mandates with a view to preventing abuses;

            (d)        Revise the 2014 Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act with a view to ensuring that access to communication data is limited to the extent strictly necessary for the prosecution of the most serious crimes and dependent upon prior judicial authorization;

(e)        Ensure that affected persons have access to effective remedies in cases of abuse.

View latest press releases