UN human rights chief: World owes ‘great deal’ to Edward Snowden

The top United Nations human rights official thinks that government leaker Edward Snowden ought to be celebrated for exposing violations of international law, not chased across the world.

After delivering a report warning that government mass surveillance is being used as a “dangerous habit rather than an exceptional measure,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued praise for Snowden.

“Those who disclose human rights violations should be protected: we need them," Pillay said at a news conference on Wednesday.

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"I see some of it here in the case of Snowden, because his revelations go to the core of what we are saying about the need for transparency, the need for consultation,” she added. “We owe a great deal to him for revealing this kind of information."

After leaving the U.S. with more than a million secret documents last year, Snowden fled first to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, where he has been ever since. In the U.S., he is wanted on espionage charges that could see in him prison for decades.

Pillay did not offer an opinion on whether or not Snowden ought to be pardoned by President Obama, as some of Snowden's supporters have argued, but nonetheless called him a “human rights defender,” according to reports.

In its report, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights did not specifically criticize surveillance at the National Security Agency and similar programs at the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters, but made it clear they were being judged.  

Some countries, the report noted, have “a lack of adequate national legislation and/or enforcement, weak procedural safeguards, and ineffective oversight, all of which have contributed to a lack of accountability for arbitrary or unlawful interference in the right to privacy.”

“Bearing the above observations in mind, there is a clear and pressing need for vigilance in ensuring the compliance of any surveillance policy or practice with international human rights law, including the right to privacy, through the development of effective safeguards against abuses,” it concluded.

Sarah St. Vincent, a human rights lawyer with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group, said that the report should be a “wake-up call for anyone who believes that our government is adequately protecting our fundamental privacy rights,” and should lead to changes in the law.

Lawmakers have begun work to reform existing surveillance law, but standoffs between defense hawks and privacy advocates have led to some tensions over the legislation in Congress. 

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