The Cable

U.S. to Back Privacy Resolution It Knee-Capped

The United States, Great Britain, and its chief intelligence allies, known as the Five Eyes, agreed late Friday to support a Brazilian and German sponsored General Assembly resolution promoting an international right to privacy, but only after thwarting efforts to impose new legal constraints on foreign espionage that could potentially restrain the U.S. National Security Agency, according to diplomats involved in the negotiations.

Last month, Brazil and Germany introduced a U.N. General Assembly resolution that sought to apply the right to privacy, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to online communications. The draft raised concern that mass "extraterritorial" surveillance and interception of communications may constitute a violation of individuals' rights under the terms of the Covenant.

But the United States opposed that measure on the grounds that there was no universal right to privacy, and that governments were only required to observe an individual's privacy rights in their own countries. A confidential State Department paper, containing a series of American "red lines" for the negotiations, called for clarifying any reference to privacy rights and "remove suggestion[s] that such obligations apply extra territorially." The United States secured that concession, and succeeded in watering down other parts of the resolution, stripping out several references to "illegal surveillance" in the draft. "Recall that the USG's [US Government's] collection activities that have been disclosed are lawful collections done in a manner protective of privacy rights," the State Department paper said.

Still, the resolution, which is likely to be adopted in the General Assembly next week, has put the issue of online privacy on the U.N. General Assembly agenda for the first time, assuring that the potential threat that digital espionage poses to individuals' human rights will continue to be debated at the world body, both in the U.N. General Assembly Chamber and at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The resolution "reaffirms the right to privacy" and "affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. It voices concern at "the negative impact the surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights."

The resolution asks the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights  to produce a report for the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council next year that addresses "the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communication and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale."

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But three diplomats involved in the talks confirmed that the U.S. had agreed to join in the consensus supporting the resolution.

Dinah PoKempner, the legal counsel for Human Rights Watch, said earlier this week that the Brazilian and German concessions to the United States and its allies were "regrettable." But she said U.S. backing of the measure marked an important and positive first step.

"Supporting this resolution, and particularly acknowledging that privacy can be violated by global mass surveillance, would help to demonstrate to its allies it actually does feel some obligation to respect the rights of their citizens as well," she wrote in an email. "The U.S. has historically been very strong on many aspects of privacy, though in recent years Europe has taken the lead on protecting personal data. It would be a very positive sign if the US would resume its historic role as a leader in rights protection."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

The Cable

This Low-Profile British Diplomat Helped Salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal

GENEVA - The historic nuclear pact with Iran that was signed shortly before dawn Sunday was a personal and professional triumph for Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested enormous amounts of his political capital in the on-again, off-again talks with Tehran. But the bigger winner may be a low-profile British diplomat who shuns the press and had long been derided as a lightweight.

Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, spent the past few days locked in round-the-clock negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. When the two sides finally agreed to a deal, it was Ashton and Zarif who met at Geneva's Palais des Nations to formally sign the pact. Ashton, who has long been wary of the media, insisted that the event be closed to all but a handful of reporters and took no questions.

That was very much in character for Ashton, an unassuming former member of the British House of Lords who got her job four years ago because of a byzantine political dispute involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Here in Geneva, though, she's been on center stage. The foreign ministers of the so-called P5+1 countries -- the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, France and Britain -- held brief meetings with Zarif this weekend, but Ashton led the talks and was Zarif's primary counterpart. Most of the time, she was the only one in the room with him as the deal slowly came together.

"Ashton has pleasantly surprised," said Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior official on the National Security Council. "She has turned out to be a reasonably effective behind-the-scenes negotiator."

The success of her efforts won't be known until Kerry and the other foreign ministers formally sign an interim agreement with Zarif that would temporarily halt, or slow, Iran's nuclear program while giving Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets. Western diplomats cautioned that the deal could still fall through -- as they did two weeks ago -- but it's highly doubtful that Kerry would be traveling to Geneva if an agreement wasn't extremely close to being finalized.

The talks in Geneva this week have veered from optimism Wednesday that an agreement was close to a grim sense Thursday that the two sides were drifting further and further away from a deal. The main sticking points were disagreements over whether Iran had the "right" to enrich uranium and whether it would have to stop, rather than simply slow, the construction of its Arak plutonium reactor. The Iranian media, much of which functions as a semi-official mouthpieces for the Iranian government, reported throughout the day that the two sides had resolved both issues.

Leading successful nuclear talks with the Iranians would mark a remarkable turnaround for Ashton, whose initial appointment had been greeted with skepticism, and in some cases derision, because she had specialized in domestic issues during her time in the British House of Lords and had no real experience in foreign policy. Ashton was also a complete unknown -- which was, paradoxically, one of the primary reasons she got the job.

In the fall of 2009, EU leaders met to choose to fill a pair of newly-created posts: president of the European Council and the rather impressive-sounding post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wanted to appoint his predecessor, Tony Blair, to the presidency, but the rest of the EU powers revolted because they didn't want someone with Blair's high public profile.

Brown eventually agreed to a compromise that gave the presidency to a former Belgian prime minister while reserving the foreign policy job for a British official. The EU didn't want a star like Blair. Ashton, who had held a series of obscure posts, was a perfect fit.

At a press conference announcing her announcement, Brown sang her praises but mispronounced her name as "Cathy Ashdown" before getting it right. Time headlined a story about the two picks as the "bland leading the bland."

Ashton herself seemed to have been caught off-guard. "It is perhaps a measure of my slight surprise that I do not have a speech written," she said at the time.

Ashton had some early stumbles, including failing to visit Haiti in the immediate aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake and giving a speech in 2012 that infuriated the Israeli government by appearing to equate a deadly shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse with the suffering of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. Ashton insisted that her comments had been taken out of context, but Ehud Barak, Israel's then-defense minister, said her comments were "outrageous and had absolutely no grounding in reality."

In recent years, though, Ashton has seemed to settle into her job. In April, she brokered a deal that led Serbia to relinquish its de facto control over northern Kosovo, easing tensions between the two longtime adversaries. More recently, she traveled to Cairo and became the first Western diplomat to visit deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Michael Mann, Ashton's spokesman, said "its fair to say that her many successes have shown that the early skepticism was completely misplaced."

When her appointment was announced in 2009, Ashton told her critics that she would eventually win them over.

"Am I an ego on legs? I am not," she said then. "Judge me on what I do, and I think you will be proud of me."

Early in her tenure, that judgment would likely have been fairly harsh. With the nuclear deal in place, though, Ashton seems likely to get the last laugh.

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