EU: Inquiry must examine use of spyware against human rights activists worldwide, MEPs told

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Over 20 human rights organisations, including Statewatch, have urged a European Parliament committee of inquiry into the use of Pegasus and other forms of surveillance spyware to invite testimony from targeted activists from across the globe, rather than just within in the EU. Read the open letter to the committee here.

24 May 2022

Dear Chair, dear members of the European Parliament Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware,

We – a group of civil society organisations and human rights defenders – are writing to you following the establishment of the European Parliament’s Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware to urge you, as members of the committee, to ensure that the systematic targetting of human rights defenders with these technologies is fully examined by the Committee, and that the voices of human rights defenders affected are heard.

We welcome the establishment of this Committee of Inquiry and are pleased to see that the Committee has been given the mandate to:

“(ascertain) whether Member States’ authorities have used the Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware for political, economic or other unjustified purposes to spy on journalists, politicians, law enforcement officials, diplomats, lawyers, businessmen, civil society actors or other actor”

to

“collect information on the extent to which Member States … or third countries use intrusive surveillance in a way that violates the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights”

and to examine

“whether the use of Pegasus or equivalent surveillance spyware, directly or indirectly involving entities linked to the EU, contributed to illegal spying on journalists, politicians, law enforcement officials, diplomats, lawyers, businessmen, civil society actors or other actor in third countries… with due regard to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other rights enshrined in international human rights law.”

The EU and its member states have made countless commitments to supporting human rights defenders, including through the EU’s Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. It is therefore crucial that this committee not only examines the use of spyware in, and by Member States, but also its use in third countries. Violations of the rights of human rights defenders in third countries is particularly relevant to the committee of inquiry for two reasons: Firstly, because NSO Group has been established to have links to companies registered in the European Union. [1] And secondly, because the purchase of Pegasus spyware by EU Member States whilst the technology was being used to violate the rights of human rights defenders, journalists and vulnerable groups in third countries could constitute a failure to “exercise adequate oversight in order to meet their international human rights obligations when they contract with… business enterprises to provide services that may impact upon the enjoyment of human rights” [2] as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

A series of investigations by media organisations and civil society [3] have established the wide ranging and significant impact of the use of Pegasus and other surveillance technologies to spy on human rights defenders around the world. Notably, the Pegasus Project coordinated by Forbidden Stories, and with the technical support of Amnesty International, exposed the massive scale and breadth of targeting of civil society actors around the world. [4] The prevalence of these technologies has led many human rights defenders to become fearful that they may be unknowingly targetted, and some have decided to halt or change the nature of their human rights work. [5] Women human rights defenders have described their social isolation following their targetting with Pegasus spyware. [6] Friends and families also distance themselves in fear of also being harmed or surveilled. Their homes and private spaces becoming no longer private and no longer safe.

Although many reports outline the devastating impact of these patterns of surveillance nothing can replace the testimony of those directly affected. To fully understand the impact of Pegasus and equivalent spyware, it will be important that the committee speak directly with human rights defenders, from the EU as well as third countries. With this in mind, we are open to supporting this committee to center the voices of civil society actors targeted with Pegasus around the world.

Lastly, we hope that the final report that will conclude the work of the committee will address in a substantial and in-depth manner the external dimension of the use of Pegasus and other spyware, notably in relation to human rights defenders in third countries, and draw ambitious and practical recommendations for EU actors, including the European External Action Service, the European Commission and the European Parliament, in this regard.

Signatories

Access Now Al-Haq

Alternatif Bilisim (AiA-Alternative Informatics Association)

Amnesty International

Article 19

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

Državljan D - Citizen D

Electronic Frontier Finland

Electronic Frontier Norway

European Digital Rights (EDRi)

Front Line Defenders

Homo Digitalis

Indigenous Peoples Rights International

International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

IT-Pol Denmark

Michel Forst, Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation for Human Rights Defenders

Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI)

Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research (PODER)

Protection International

Statewatch

The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy (The PIPD)

Vrijschrift.org

Notes

[1] https://amnesty.org/en/documents/doc10/4182/2021/en/

[2] https://ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/publications/guidingprinciplesbusinesshr_en.pdf

[3] Forensic Methodology Report: How to catch NSO Group’s Pegasus – Amnesty International

Unsafe Anywhere: Women Human Rights Defenders Speak Out About Pegasus Attacks – Front Line Defenders,   AccessNow

Peace through Pegasus: Jordanian Human Rights Defenders and Journalists Hacked with Pegasus Spyware – Front   Line Defenders, the Citizen Lab

Six Palestinian human rights defenders hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware – Front Line Defenders, the  Citizen Lab

Civil society condemns use of Pegasus in El Salvador to spy on journalists and activists – multiple organisations

#GobiernoEspía: Victims’ lawyers in Narvarte case targets of Pegasus spyware – Article19

[4] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/07/the-pegasus-project/

[5] https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/statement-report/action-needed-address-targeted-surveillance-human-rights- defenders

[6] https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/unsafe-anywhere_-women-human-rights-defenders-speak-out- about-pegasus-attacks_en.pdf

Further reading


Image: diamond geezer, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

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