UN Human Rights Council Establishes a Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age


The United Nations Human Rights Council at its 28th session on March 26, 2015 adopted a resolution that establishes a new mandate for a Special Rapporteur on Privacy in the Digital Age for a period of three years. The four week long annual spring session of the Human Rights Council began on the 2nd of March and ended on the 27th of March.

The council, in the resolution, calls upon all States to cooperate fully with and assist the Special Rapporteur in the performance of the mandate, including by providing all necessary information requested by him or her; to respond promptly to his or her urgent appeals and other communications; to consider favourably the mandate holder’s requests to visit their countries and to consider implementing the recommendations made by the mandate holder in his or her reports.

Brazil and Germany had jointly proposed a preliminary version of a resolution on online privacy at the UN General Assembly in November 2013. At a time when public outrage over the reach and scope of U.K. and U.S. mass surveillance is at an all-time high, the draft resolution is the first official recognition by the UN of the threat that mass surveillance poses to human rights.

The right to privacy used to be treated with little priority by the UN even though it is enshrined in international law – it is set out in article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. With the recent approval of an expert on privacy by the Human Rights Council, the right to privacy is now prioritized just as much as other human rights.

The special rapporteur on Privacy in the digital age will be appointed in June 2015. The responsibilities of the rapporteurs will include: carrying out systematic analyses, research, and monitoring of the right to privacy across the world. They will also look into reported violations and also will report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). They will draw attention to situations of particular concern and submit an annual report to the UNHRC and the General Assembly.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group, the decision to establish a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy was a key step forward for the UNHRC. “It elevates the right to privacy to the priority level that the human rights council ascribes to most other human rights. Most importantly, it gives the right to privacy the international recognition and protection it deserves.”