UN Member States criticize Netherlands over 'ethnic profiling'

Thursday, 31 May 2012

This morning in Geneva the long-awaited Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Netherlands took place before the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UN). In the run up to this four-year session, the Privacy First Foundation and various other organisations had emphatically voiced their privacy concerns about the Netherlands to both the UN and to almost all UN Member States; you can read more about this HERE. The Dutch delegation for the UPR session was led by Interior Minister Ms. Liesbeth Spies. The opening statement by Spies contained the following, remarkable passage about privacy:

"The need to strike a balance between different interests has sometimes been hotly debated in the Dutch political arena, for example in the context of privacy measures and draft legislation limiting privacy. The compatibility of this kind of legislation with human rights standards is of utmost importance. This requires a thorough scrutiny test, which is guaranteed by our professionals and institutions. Improvements in this regard have been made when necessary, especially in the starting phase of new draft legislation. This has been done in the field of privacy, where making Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs), describing the modalities for the planned processing of personal data, are compulsory now." (pp. 5-6, italics Privacy First)

A "thorough scrutiny test" and compulsory Privacy Impact Assessments are the terms that positively stand out for Privacy First.

Prior to the UPR session, the United Kingdom had already put the following questions to the Netherlands: "Given recent concerns about data collection and security, including the unintended consequences of cases of identity theft, does the Netherlands have plans for measures to ensure more comprehensive oversight of the collection, use and retention of personal data?" (Source) On behalf of the Netherlands, Minister Spies responded to this question in Geneva this morning saying: "On the review of our laws on data protection, The Netherlands are currently working on a legislative proposal on data breach notification, following announcements of this proposal in the present coalition agreement. The proposal, which would require those responsible for personal data to notify the data protection authorities in case of "leakage" of personal data with specific risks for privacy (including identity theft), is expected to be tabled in Parliament in the coming months." This answer is rather concise and unfortunately it doesn’t contain any new elements. However, a new Dutch law on compulsory notification for data leakages will hopefully become a best practice for other UN Member States. The credits for this go to our colleagues of the Dutch NGO Bits of Freedom who have worked on this for a long time.  

During the UPR session Estonia called the protection of privacy and personal data a "human rights challenge of the 21st century". Morocco then asked a critical question about the privacy issue: "Quelles sont les mesures concrètes entreprises par les autorités néerlandaises pour sécuriser l'utilisation des donnés personnelles?" ("What are the concrete measures taken by the Dutch authorities to protect the use of personal data?") The Philippines also raised the issue of the right to privacy, but only in these words: "The Philippine delegation appreciates the frank assessment of the Netherlands of the obstacles and challenges it has to hurdle in the implementation of the right to privacy especially in the area of protection of personal information." The comments by Greece, India, Russia and Uzbekistan were more content-focused. Greece addressed the practice of preventive searches: "We take note of reports regarding the issue of preventive body searches. We recommend that the Netherlands ensure that in its application of preventive body searches, all relevant human rights are adequately protected, in particular the right to privacy and physical integrity and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race and religion." India exhorted the Netherlands on ethnic profiling of citizens: "We encourage the Dutch Government to take concrete measures to combat discrimination including discrimination by the Government such as ethnic profiling." Russia too advised the Netherlands "to introduce measures to stamp out discrimination arising as a result of the practice of racist, ethnic or religious profiling." The Netherlands was addressed about this very issue by Uzbekistan as well: "We are concerned over the existence of information on the increasingly broad use by the police of racist profiling."

As a reaction to these points Minister Spies referred to recent research by the Dutch police, scientists and the National, the Amsterdam and the Rotterdam Ombudsman about preventive body searches, discrimination and ethnic profiling. With regard to digital profiling (in general), she moreover proclaimed the following: "In its recent proposal for a general Data Protection Regulation, the [European] Commission has included rules on profiling, which can address the problems associated with profiling and the protection of personal data. The Netherlands endorses the need for clear legislative rules with regard to this topic, given the specific challenges for privacy protection that this technique entails. This is also the background against which the Netherlands welcomed in 2010 the Council of Europe Resolution on this topic, which contained a useful definition of profiling that would also be beneficial for inclusion in the [European] Commission proposals. The Netherlands will draw attention to this ongoing discussion in Brussels. The Regulation, once in force, will be directly applicable in the Netherlands." 

By and large this is a reasonable result, given that up until now the privacy issue had hardly played any role at all within the UN Human Rights Council. However, it’s a shame that most countries still hardly dare to confront this issue, let alone ask specific and critical questions about it. Many of the recommendations by Privacy First have not been touched upon during this UPR session, although diplomats in Geneva and The Hague had earlier shown great interest in them. Perhaps they were stopped by their Foreign Affairs departments in capital cities because many privacy issues are also sensitive in their own domestic politics? Who knows... However, the fact remains that the international community was informed by Privacy First well in advance, which was part of the reason that the Dutch UN delegation headed by Minister Spies was properly focussed on the job at hand. This can only be to the benefit of general awareness and the protection of privacy, both inside and outside the Netherlands. In the end, for us this is what it’s all about. 

Update 4 June 2012: This afternoon, a working group of the Human Rights Council adopted a draft report on the Dutch UPR session. The final version of this report will be adopted by the Human Rights Council in September 2012, accompanied by a (motivated) acceptance or rejection by the Netherlands of each individual recommendation in the report. Furthermore, this will also be discussed by the Dutch House of Representatives.

A total of 49 countries have taken part in the Dutch UPR session. It is noteworthy that Belgium, Italy and Austria did not take part in the session (although Belgium and Italy had in fact enrolled beforehand). As far as Austria is concerned this is particularly regrettable, because of all the UN Member States it was actually Austria which had in advance expressed the most interest in the Privacy First UPR shadow report and had intimated to be able to make a powerful, overall recommendation to the Netherlands about the right to privacy.  

Update 21 September 2012: This morning, the UN Human Rights Council discussed its recommendations to the Netherlands. The Dutch Permanent Representative in Geneva declared which recommendations have been accepted or rejected by the Netherlands; see this UN document and this video. The two recommendations by the Human Rights Council that related to ethnic profiling and preventive body searches have both been accepted by the Netherlands under the following clarification:

ethnic profiling: "The Dutch government rejects the use of ethnic profiling for criminal investigation purposes as a matter of principle." About profiling in a more general sense: "In its recent proposal for a General Data Protection Regulation, the European Commission included rules on profiling that address problems that may arise due to the increasing technical possibilities for in-depth searches of databases containing personal data. The Netherlands endorses the need for clear legislative rules on this subject, given the specific challenges for privacy protection that this technology entails." (Source, 98.57 & n. 75).
- preventive body searches: "The power to stop and search is strictly regulated in the Netherlands. The mayor of a municipality may designate an area where, for a limited period of time, preventive searches may be carried out in response to a disturbance of or grave threats to public order due to the presence of weapons. The public prosecutor then has discretion to order actual body searches and searches of vehicles and luggage for weapons."
(Source, 98.74 & n. 95).

See also this statement by the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights (Dutch abbreviation: NJCM) from this morning (video). Just like the NJCM, Privacy First regrets the lack of government consultation in the run up to today’s UPR session.

Below you can watch the 31 May 2012 UPR session in its entirety (click HERE for video segments of individual countries). 

Media

UPR Netherlands 31 May 2012 UN Webcast

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