Global Civil Society Groups Express Concern over Draft UN Cybercrime Treaty

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A group of 91 civil society organisations and academics which work to protect and advance human rights online and offline, including Media Rights Agenda (MRA), have issued a joint letter expressing grave concerns about a proposed United Nations’ cybercrime treaty and making recommendations for its revision to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are prioritized

The letter addressed to H.E. Ms. Faouzia Boumaiza Mebarki, Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee to Elaborate a Comprehensive International Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Criminal Purposes, pointed out that the draft text released by the committee on November 7, 2022, formally entitled “the consolidated negotiating document (CND) on the general provisions and the provisions on criminalization and on procedural measures and law enforcement of a comprehensive international convention on countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes,” risks running afoul of international human rights law.

The groups contended that the CND is overbroad in its scope and not restricted to core cybercrimes, and that it also includes provisions that are not sufficiently clear and precise, and would criminalize activity in a manner that is not fully aligned and consistent with States’ human rights obligations set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and other international human rights standards and instruments.

They noted further, that the CND’s criminal procedural and law enforcement chapter lacks robust human rights safeguards, while its substantive provisions expand the scope of criminal intent and conduct, threatening to criminalize legitimate activities of journalists, whistleblowers, security researchers, and others.

They warned that failing to prioritize human rights throughout all the Chapters can have dire consequences, pointing out that the protection of fundamental rights has consistently been raised by Member States throughout the sessions of the Ad Hoc Committee to elaborate the Proposed Convention. Many States and non-governmental stakeholders have called for the Proposed Convention to be fully aligned and consistent with international human rights law.

Specifically, the letter raised concern that Clusters 2 to 10 include a long list of offences that are not core cybercrimes, offences that interfere with protected speech and fail to comply with permissible restrictions under international freedom of expression standards, or offences drafted with vague or overbroad language.

They recommended that Criminalization Chapter should be restricted to core cybercrimes–criminal offences in which information and communications technology (ICT) systems are the direct objects, as well as instruments, of the crimes saying these crimes could not exist at all without the ICT systems.

Saying that they are particularly concerned about the inclusion of content crimes such as “extremism-related offences” (Article 27) and “terrorism-related offences” (Article 29), the groups stated that these provisions disregard existing human rights standards set out by various UN bodies on policies and national strategies to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism.

The groups said the inclusion of several content-related offences is profoundly concerning (as in some of the crimes under Clusters 4, 7, 8, and 9), noting that they have reiterated throughout the negotiating process, that this instrument should not include speech related offences. Including these crimes, they said, poses a heightened risk that the proposed Convention will contravene existing international protection of freedom of expression and be used to restrict protected expression under international human rights standards.

They therefore recommended a revision of the treaty to ensure that the scope of the Convention should be limited to issues within the realm of the criminal justice system and should be limited in both its substantive and procedural scope to core cybercrimes; that the proposed crimes under Articles 6 and 10 should be revised to include, at minimum, a standard of both fraudulent intent and harm, to protect journalists, whistleblowers, and security researchers; and that the criminalization chapters are restricted to offences against the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of computer data and systems, among others.

The full letter can be downloaded here.