Human Rights & the International Trade in Security and Surveillance Technology - Case Study: China
October 31, 2005
Human Rights in China and Rights & Democracy hosted a roundtable event on human rights and the international trade in information and communications technologies (ICTs). Using China as a case study, the meeting examined how the application of ICTs for security and surveillance purposes can result in human rights violations and undermine democracy in the absence of checks and balances taken for granted in most democratic nations. The meeting brought together more than 30 civil society representatives, government delegates and technical experts. Through a series of presentations and discussions, participants addressed the technologies themselves, the tenants of human rights law, the challenges faced by human rights defenders in China and regulatory frameworks governing the export of security and surveillance technology. The following report provides brief summaries of the presentations.
Panel 1: Overview of the issues
The first panel reviewed key issues related to the trade in ICTs and human rights. It detailed how security and surveillance technology works and continued with a discussion of the human rights implications of the export of certain ICTs to China. The morning panel concluded with a presentation on human rights violations in China in general and the nature of state obligations.
a. The technology & how it works
Censorship and surveillance are closely related. Technologies which perform surveillance operations can easily lend themselves to facilitating censorship and vice versa. However, the presence of surveillance technologies, for instance, does not necessarily denote that
censorship is taking place. In China, the mere existence of surveillance technologies linked to internet use has created a culture of fear which leads to “self-censorship”.
Corporations that have exported technologies which can be used for censorship purposes often maintain that the software itself is neutral. This leads corporations to deny their responsibility for the end use of the software and avoid adequate due diligence.
China's surveillance network incorporates not only internet surveillance but speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards and credit records. Surveillance and “C4I” technologies (command, control, communication, computers and intelligence) are commonly used by military, law enforcement and emergency services, as well as commercial and private organizations. While these systems may have legitimate military, police and civilian uses, they also have inherent capabilities that can facilitate human rights violations.
b. Selling security technology to the Chinese market
In China, trade policy is fuelled, in part, by national security interests and a defence discourse. China’s prior utilization of dual-use technologies for military purposes, its historical re-exportation of military technology and its clear objective of ensuring social control - combined with its poor human rights record - are among the factors which lead analysts to believe that certain ICTs will be used for surveillance and repression.
The human rights costs of China's use of surveillance technologies are endured by the dissidents and human rights defenders who are subject to punishment when exercising
their rights to freedom of expression and association. The link between human rights and business, intertwined with China’s international human rights obligations and commitments, corporate social responsibility, and multilateral guidelines and norms cannot be ignored.
c. Human Rights Violations and State Obligations
States hold the primary responsibility for ensuring that human rights are protected, promoted and fulfilled. China has ratified several human rights treaties. It has signed, but not ratified, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Although China is not legally bound by the treaty provisions until ratification takes place, its signature does imply the intent to ratify and requires that that the spirit of the treaty be respected.
China’s security and surveillance practices result in specific violations of human rights law including the right to privacy and to information, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. States exporting ICTs to China must consider their own extra-territorial human rights obligations and ensure that international trade does not threaten to undermine human rights standards in the importing countries. This can be done through a number of means such as ensuring adequate regulation of companies exporting to countries where serious human rights violations persist.