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Colombian government surveillance ignoring history and human rights

Last February, the Colombian media revealed that the country's intelligence service carried out widespread surveillance of key NGOs, journalists, and leftist politicians, including their own governmental team responsible for negotiating a peace agreement with the Colombian guerilla.

The Colombian operation, named Andromeda, sheds light on an unchecked intelligence surveillance apparatus, highlighting how the country has failed again to put human rights at the center of their surveillance activities. This new disclosure recollects previous instances of illegal surveillance, known as “Las Chuzadas.” The Colombian secret service (DAS) used to spy on political opponents, journalists, labor organizers, and even NGOs seeking to alleviate human rights abuses. It also sought to neutralize the work of the European Parliament Human Rights Commission by using smear campaigns, as well as silence and manipulate critical voices in the media. The DAS was stopped in 2011 and a new secret service is now in operation.

This is why Fundacion Karisma, a Colombian NGO focusing on human rights in the digital age, along with other Colombian NGOs, sent a letter to the Colombian President requesting the ability to participate in a high-level commission responsible for revising and analysing the national intelligence legal framework. This secretive committee currently includes government officials, national security experts and “selected” private sector companies—but no representatives from the NGO community.

Out of the committee's secret meetings came a document containing a series of recommendations, which so far have not been publicly disclosed. This set of recommendations will be discussed this week by a group of international “experts,” invited by the Organization of American States, with a view to build Colombian “cybersecurity and cyberdefense policy.”

Fundacion Karisma believes that a strong framework establishing effective guarantees for the protection of human rights is a must. The collection of, interception of, or access to communications data—in general “Communication Surveillance” — represents a serious interference with human rights that must be protected according to international human rights law. Fundacion Karisma called upon the Colombian government to revise its domestic legal framework and ensure that its surveillance activities comply with its human rights treaty obligations.

The Colombian government can look at the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance (the “Necessary and Proportionate Principles”) as a guiding framework for understanding how to integrate human rights protections into its own national legal framework, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques. A serious discussion is needed about the policy implications of covert surveillance programs in Colombia and their impact on citizens' privacy, right of association, and fundamental freedoms.

For more information in Spanish, read the following op-ed in Diario El Espectador

This post has been written in collaboration with Fundacion Karisma in Colombia

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