Press Release

IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression Urge the State of Colombia to Conduct a Diligent, Timely, and Independent Investigation into Allegations of Illegal Surveillance Against Journalists, Justice Operators, Human Rights Defenders, and Political Leaders

May 21, 2020

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Washington, D.C. -  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression are very concerned about reports that journalists, justice operators, human rights defenders, and political leaders in Colombia have been subjected to illegal surveillance by a network orchestrated by National Army personnel. The IACHR urges the State to conduct a comprehensive, immediate, and independent investigation into these allegations.

The IACHR learned—in a new feature published by the news magazine Semana—details of the operations of this scheme, allegedly organized from at least four intelligence and counterintelligence battalions and brigades in Colombia’s Armed Forces.

According to this report, at least 130 social leaders, human rights defenders (including members of the José Alvear Retrepo Lawyers Association), national and foreign journalists, and political leaders whose names have been published have been the subject of “profiles” and “special assignments” done by this network. Through software and other computer tools, massive searches and data-mining operations were conducted to draft military intelligence reports about these individuals, whose work is in all cases protected by the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of association, or civil rights. This surveillance allegedly involved monitoring, data mining from private communications (taken from telephones, emails, homes, and places of work), details of these people’s families and contacts, interference with their private lives, and even wiretapping.

On January 16, 2020, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship issued press release R10/20, to express their concern about espionage that had allegedly taken place between February and December 2019 in Colombia. In that press release, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship stressed that attempts to subject private communications to surveillance software and systems need to be clearly and precisely regulated by law, and that they must be truly exceptional and restricted to whatever is strictly necessary for purposes such as investigating serious crimes defined by the law, and should always require a prior court warrant.

In this context, in accordance with inter-American standards, surveillance needs to be legal (in both formal and material terms), necessary, and proportionate. The aims of all monitoring or wiretapping procedures need to have been expressly authorized by law, and all relevant legislation needs to establish the need for a prior court warrant. The IACHR has also said that mass surveillance targeting communications can never be considered proportionate.

Similarly, systematically gathering public data that have been voluntarily provided by the owner of the data on blogs, social media, or any other platform in the public domain also amounts to interference with that individual’s private life. The fact that an individual leaves public evidence of their activities (which is inevitable on the Internet) does not entitle the State to systematically collect that evidence, except in specific circumstances where such interference is justified.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship stress that unlawful interference includes any procedures targeting human rights defenders, journalists, and media outlets whether for political reasons and to find out their sources of information.

The Commission notes the decision made by the Defense Ministry to dismiss from active service 11 officers who allegedly made irregular use of military intelligence capacities. The Commission has also been informed of disciplinary proceedings that are allegedly being conducted by the Office of the Attorney General against military personnel over these events, while an investigation is allegedly also ongoing into the illegal wiretapping that was exposed in January.

The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship stress the need for the Colombian State to conduct all investigations with due diligence, to find out what happened and to identify and punish wrongdoers. In particular, the IACHR calls on the State to investigate the potential involvement of high authorities with private or political interests—in and out of the chain of command—as the final recipients of illegally obtained information. The State must use all legal and institutional mechanisms at its disposal to ensure an independent and impartial investigation, the Commission notes. Alleged victims need to be informed of any progress and, in compliance with their right to judicial safeguards, they must be allowed to take part in all criminal-law and administrative proceedings, particularly those focused on the collection of evidence and the conduct of expert examinations.

Further, given Colombia’s history of intrusive and illegal practices of this kind—which the IACHR addressed in 2004, 2009, and 2014—the relevant authorities will need to use all available mechanisms to protect the rights to private life and personal integrity of individuals affected by this scheme, in agreement with these individuals. The outcome of this process will need to be publicized, so Colombian society knows the truth about these events and so such events do not happen again.

Finally, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship urge the Colombian State to take any corrective action necessary to end illegal monitoring and wiretapping by intelligence agencies or any other State institution, and to ensure mechanisms that enable individuals whose data have been collected for intelligence purposes to have access to that information and be able to request amendments, updates, or the removal of such information from intelligence records.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

The Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the IACHR to promote the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the Americas, considering the fundamental role that right plays in the consolidation and development of any democratic system.

No. 118/20