Wednesday, December 8, 2021

UN rights body warns Botswana against intrusive surveillance

The United Nations Human Rights Committee on Friday released its findings on Botswana urging caution over increasing state surveillance which it says violates citizens’ privacy rights.

Botswana is one of the state parties that were reviewed during the Committee’s last session recently.

In its report dated 11 November 2021, the UN Committee stated: “The committee is concerned about reports of an increased monitoring of online activities and the intrusive use of intelligence methods by State security and intelligence agencies, including as part of Covid-19 state-of-emergency measures,” the Committee stated in its report.

According to the report, the Committee was also concerned “about the lack of oversight mechanisms and sufficient safeguards against arbitrary interference with the right to privacy in relation to surveillance and interception activities by State authorities.”

The Committee recommended that Botswana should ensure that, “All types of surveillance activities and interference with privacy, including online surveillance, interception of communications, access to communications data and retrieval of data, are governed by appropriate legislation that conforms with the Covenant, in particular article 17, including with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity.”

Botswana was also urged to ensure that “Surveillance and interception are conducted subject to judicial authorization and to effective and independent oversight mechanisms, and that the persons affected have proper access to effective remedies in cases of abuse.”

On freedom of expression, the Committee expressed concern that domestic provisions may unduly restrict freedom of expression and access to information, including the National Security Act, the Sedition Act, the Media Practitioners Act of 2008, the Cybercrime and Related Crimes Act, sections 90, 91, 93 and 192 to 199 of the Penal Code, and the Emergency Powers Act, enacted during the COVID pandemic.

“The Committee is further concerned that defamation continues to be criminalised in the State party and that there are no specific provisions in domestic legislation to protect journalists and human rights defenders in the course of their work. In this regard, the Committee is concerned about reports of undue government pressure, arrests, torture and attacks against members of the political opposition, journalists, human rights defenders and others criticizing the Government, which may have a chilling effect within the civic space,” the Committee said in its report.

The UN Committee therefore, recommended that Botswana should revise national legislation that may unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression, including the laws mentioned above on freedoms of opinion and expression.

Botswana was also called on to ensure that any restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression comply with the strict requirements of article 19 (3) of the Covenant; consider decriminalizing defamation and, in any case, resorting to criminal law only in the most serious cases, bearing in mind that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for defamation.

The UN Committee also urged Botswana  to protect journalists and human rights defenders, and investigate all cases of harassment against them, arbitrary arrest and detention, prosecute and punish those responsible, and provide victims with full reparations.

The Committee also expressed concern that the Public Order Act requires a police permit to hold an assembly and about reports that this requirement is being used in practice to deny authorization for peaceful assemblies. The Committee was also concerned about reports of excessive use of force by State authorities to disperse protests and the arbitrary detention and arrest of protesters for exercising their right of peaceful assembly.

Botswana was urged to bring all laws and practices governing peaceful assembly, particularly the Public Order Act, into full compliance with the Covenant and ensure that any restrictions imposed are in compliance with the strict requirements therein.

“It (Botswana) should also effectively investigate all cases of violence, arbitrary arrest and detention of peaceful protesters and bring those responsible to justice. The use of force by law enforcement officials during peaceful assemblies should be brought into line with the United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement, and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials,” the Committee said.

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