by Naureen Shah, Director, Security with Human Rights
Edward Snowden has changed the world. From Kenya to Pakistan to Mexico, human rights defenders are more empowered than ever before to fight back against governments that use surveillance technology to control and often crush dissent.
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s act of courage, we know more than ever before about how and why unchecked surveillance is a threat to human rights. Digital security has become a basic practice for journalists and human rights defenders who need to carry out their sensitive work without exposing themselves to unlawful government surveillance. Activists are challenging dangerous new surveillance laws in countries around the world.
Edward Snowden sparked a global debate and movement for privacy.
In countries around the world we’ve seen mass surveillance laws challenged and debated in parliaments and courts. There is now a privacy watchdog at the UN. This wouldn’t have happened without Edward Snowden.
He has changed the way technology companies — Apple, WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook, to name a few — understand their obligations to protect human rights, and some are now doing more to safeguard our personal information than ever before. Some have implemented stronger encryption in their platforms and services, others are challenging the US government in courts over requests to access their user´s data.
But Edward Snowden’s action shouldn’t just be judged by what’s happened so far. We should consider what would have happened without him. What if we had never learned of the mass surveillance machinery used by the U.S. government and other governments? What if there had been no Edward Snowden? We might still have no idea that the cameras on our laptops could be turned on, without our knowledge; that our phones could be turned into listening devices by the government, even when they’re powered off; that the government could do this and much more, without actually suspecting any of us of a crime.
Edward Snowden’s actions may have thwarted a dystopia of inescapable surveillance, where freedom of expression had no real chance.
The right to dissent and the right to defend human rights — these are among the first casualties of a surveillance state. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we learned that the government was using the Internet as a way to monitor all our expression online.
And yet, his actions are not enough to prevent a future of mass surveillance. Edward Snowden revealed the state of U.S. surveillance as of 2010. Twenty or fifty years from now, surveillance technologies may be even more advanced and the reach of governments into our private lives even more inescapable. The world will need another Edward Snowden. We will need more and more Edward Snowden’s.
Edward Snowden has done the global movement for human rights a profound service, yet many have called for him to be imprisoned, or even killed.
It’s deeply disturbing that, 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government’s sense of justice is so skewed that while not a single person has been prosecuted for torture or unlawful drone killings, it is Edward Snowden who faces decades behinds bars.
So, while we witness the vilification of Edward Snowden, this is happening:
· The architects of CIA torture celebrate their abuses, safe in the knowledge they likely won’t ever be prosecuted.
· 61 men languish at Guantanamo, many locked away without charges for more than a decade, and they may die there.
· Drone strikes have killed scores, including a woman struck by Hellfire missiles and blown to bits before the eyes of her grandchildren, and yet her death has never even been acknowledged by the U.S. government.
Wednesday September 14th marked the 15th year that U.S. intelligence and defense agencies have used the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, a law passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as a permission slip for human rights abuses.
These out of control agencies, unchecked by the courts and Congress, violating human rights with impunity — this is why Edward Snowden had to speak out, why it’s ludicrous to suggest he could have worked within this desperately broken system, a system where human rights abuses are systematically ignored and sometimes covered up.
This is a national security state that for 15 years has thrived on secrecy and public ignorance and that, in far too many ways, the Obama administration has failed to rein in.
It is under the twisted logic of the U.S. government that tens of millions of people around the world could be kept under watch, and never told.
But thanks to Edward Snowden’s actions, they were told, and they rejected claims that surveillance was for their own good. In a 2015 poll commissioned by Amnesty International, polling 15,000 people in 13 countries spanning every continent, 71 percent of people said they strongly opposed the U.S. monitoring their internet use. And twice as many people said they opposed surveillance by their own governments as those who approved of it.
Edward Snowden revealed violations of privacy on a massive scale, violations affecting the rights of tens of millions of people, and Amnesty International considers his action to have been overwhelmingly in the public interest.
Amnesty International believes that the U.S. government should not have made charges in relation to his human rights disclosures in the first place. At the very least, and in the event of the case going to trial, Snowden should be guaranteed a public interest defense. However, after repeatedly calling on the U.S. government to drop the charges, and in the absence of any change in his circumstances, we support a presidential pardon as Snowden’s best chance of freedom.
It is not too late for President Obama to act, and we urge him grant Edward Snowden a pardon not only because it is the right thing to do, but because a pardon will send a signal to human right defenders and potential whistleblowers all over the world that they are right to speak out; that acting to defend human rights is heroic, not criminal; and that the United States stands on the side of human dignity and human rights.