Gulf Centre for Human Rights
Khalid Ibrahim (GCHR, Middle East and North Africa) Nardine Alnemr (GCHR, Middle East and North Africa)
Asia Abdulkareem (INSM, Middle East and North Africa)
Khalid Ibrahim (GCHR, Middle East and North Africa)
Marwa Fatfata (AccessNow, Middle East and North Africa)
Samuel Jones (Heartland Initiative, North America)
Targets: Individuals in any society deserve to live free from repression, in peace, and with trust in a sense of justice through accountability. In countries such as spanning the MENA region, the justice system fails many individuals for not honouring universal human rights. This session showcases ongoing efforts to build strong institutions for accountability than can help remedy consequences of fear and injustices endured by many.
The format is more conversational. The session starts with each speaker presenting a brief summary of their work and the level(s) of accountability they focus for 5-8 mins. The floor is then open for discussions with participants, where they in turn can highlight similarities or avenues for further collaboration.
The ubiquity of surveillance technologies in our daily lives carries threats to human rights in ways that might not be always clear and present. But for human rights defenders, journalists, and citizens living under governments that do not respect human rights, the threats are clear, continuous, and malefic. Cybersecurity surveillance technologies are widely used to track, monitor, and intimidate these communities. The level of risks varies between severe losses from defamation by leaking private information (this is an especially gendered tactic) to tracking that leads to arbitrary indictments, and to even death. Effects of targeted surveillance are too far reaching, creating an overall condition of insecurity, distrust, and fear of exercising human rights. Advocacy for remedy in this case relies on multi-layered and stronger institutions of accountability. When international civil society’s advocacy was directed at allied governments and institutions, the results was merely a series of resolutions that were not enforced. The purpose of this networking session is to shed a light on advocacy done at different complementary levels—e.g., recent efforts to highlight the liability of business actors involved such as investors. Organised by the MENA Surveillance Coalition, this session is a space for groups and individuals working on advocacy for human rights due diligence in the space of surveillance technology development, funding, export, or import to discuss their work to date, next steps, and find collaborators for future work.
We will aim to recruit more speakers who are joining online rather than onsite to ensure a truly hybrid setting. Previous experiences with hybrid forums show that there’s always a skew to prioritise speaker who are present onsite. Yet, recently we have learned that an even number of speakers online and onsite balances out this inequity. As such our online moderator will be keeping track of interactions happening. Questions and turn-taking will rotate between an online and an on-site participation. The organisers will also provide all participants a link to a collaborative document to directly make suggestions, input or exchange contacts and resources. *Please note that we are also reaching out to represent the work of groups in other regions such as Latin America.
• Surveillance is a burgeoning industry in the Middle East/West Asia and North Africa (MENA) region. The technologies are widely used to target and intimidate journalists, human rights activists, civil society organisations, and lawyers. Accountability for consequent harms is layered and can be examined at different levels.
• Documentation is key to hold the actors implicated accountable. This includes analysis of export controls at the supply level, human rights due diligence at the investment and development levels, and finally, the types of human rights violations and harms at the individual and social levels.
• Documentation and advocacy need to be bolstered by binding actions and enforcement to remedy the compounding harms.
• The international community needs to seriously consider the prospects of universal jurisdiction to hold actors involved in surveillance technologies sale, development, deployment, and use accountable when human rights violations are committed.
Surveillance Technology in MENA: Different Levels of Accountability
11 October 2023
Organiser and rapporteur: Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Chair: Khalid Ibrahim (GCHR)
- Marwa Fatafta (AccessNow)
- Asia Abdulkareem (INSM)
- Samuel Jones (Heartland Initiative)
This networking session was organised by the MENA Surveillance Coalition (MCCS), co-led by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Access Now, to introduce participants to the work of MCCS and other collaborators in the space of human rights and surveillance technology governance. Collaborators who joined this session include, the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM) and Heartland Initiative. The aim of this session was to create a connecting space for groups and experts working on advocacy for human rights due diligence in surveillance technology development, funding and investment, export, or import.
The following is a summary of key points raised by the speakers about their work to date, next steps, and potential future collaborations:
Khalid Ibrahim (GCHR) explained the ultimate goal of MCCS is to end the sale of digital surveillance tools to repressive governments in the region, fight for a safe and open internet, defend human rights, and protect human rights defenders, journalists, and internet users from governments’ prying eyes. Ibrahim demonstrated the extent of harms arising from surveillance spyware targeting in the case of his colleague, prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, who was the first victim of Pegasus spyware (by NSO Group) back in 2015 which is the same year in which he got the Martin Ennals Award for human rights. Ibrahim noted that, Mansoor was arrested on 20 March 2017, tortured and sentenced to 10 years in prison in solitary confinement.
Others targeted by spyware in the region also reap no justice through local mechanisms and institutions. Therefore, Ibrahim made an argument about universal jurisdiction for vindication of human rights violations. GCHR filed a complaint in France on 28 July 2021 against the Israeli software company NSO Group. Future collaborations lie in observing developments in other cases filed against NSO Group.
Marwa Fatafta (AccessNow) also explained the context for the creation of the MCCS: an urgent response to the proliferating use of commercial spyware and the digital surveillance tools in the MENA region. AccessNow has been investigating and exposing the depth and the spreads of how spyware, and different surveillance tools produced by NSO Group, among others, systematically used to target, monitor, and surveil human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, civil society from Bahrain to Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Egypt, you name it. On-going collaborations include a new lawsuit, that both GCHR and Access Now are working on, filed against the UAE surveillance company Dark Matter which hacked the device of prominent woman human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul. The court can exercise its jurisdiction to uphold human rights and most importantly send a message to the surveillance industry that they can indeed be held accountable. Ultimately, Fatafta concluded, the advocacy effort of MCCS is to expose where export controls have been lacking as well as to add pressure on governments to regulate this industry.
Asia Abdulkareem (INSM) emphasised the role of civil society organisations in documentation of numerous cases of surveillance and digital attacks against Iraqi activists. This documentation has helped to raise awareness of the problem and has put pressure on the Iraqi government to take action. Future work involves observation and scrutiny of enforcement by the Iraqi government which is often slow to implement reforms.
Samuel Jones (Heartland Initiative) approached accountability at the level of investors arguing that investors ought to extend exclusionary screens for “controversial weapons”, fundamentally incompatible with international humanitarian and human rights law, to surveillance technologies and spyware. Heartland Initiative is currently working with some of the investor partners, along with colleagues at Access Now, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and other experts to develop similar criteria for spyware – meaning it would be excluded from investment portfolios – due to the emerging discourse suggesting it is also fundamentally incompatible with international law. As for their future work, Jones added, is mapping surveillance technologies and spyware being used in the MENA region, including companies, their investors, their corporate structures, as well as the human rights abuses facilitated by the use of their technology.