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Surveillance exports: How EU Member States are compromising new human rights standards

Since 2016, the European Union has been working on proposals to implement stricter controls on the export of surveillance technology outside the EU. However, internal documents now prove that certain Member States – especially Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom – are succumbing to pressure from business interests. As a result, human rights safeguards are being diluted.

Dual Use Leaks. Alle Rechte vorbehalten ROG/Picture Alliance/AP Images

In partnership with the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders Germany, we are disclosing the full text of many EU Council negotiation documents. Read the complete reporting in German.


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The discussion about European accountability for human rights abuses conducted through surveillance has been especially pressing since The Arab Spring in 2010. It became evident that European companies were selling spy tools to authoritarian regimes such as Syria, Egypt and Libya. These technologies were then used against journalists, human rights activists, and opposition groups to suppress democratic movements.

In response, the European Commission proposed a new regulation for export controls of surveillance technology. It was a recast of the so-called „dual use regulation“ in which goods are controlled with both a military and a civil end-use.

In early 2018, the European Parliament – with an overwhelming majority of 91 percent – voted for changes in the Commission’s draft. However, none of the Commission’s approaches to safeguard human rights were principally challenged by the Parliament. The European legislative process now requires a position by the Member States, so that all three institutions can find a compromise in the trialogue.

However, the documents we are publishing reveal that Finland and Sweden in particular are fundamentally opposed to any improvements regarding stricter controls of new human rights standards. The position is supported by the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy and Poland.

The countries explained in a paper brought into the negotiations in May that they consider all of the human rights proposals by the Commission as unnecessary. However, countries like Germany and France had also argued this position earlier on – that there was „no need“ for some of the Commission’s improvements, such as the so-called „human rights catch-all clause“.

In May, a majority in the European Council already voted against this approach, now revealed by the internal documents of the German government. In November, the European Member States will come together for their final discussions and voting on their positions. Adopting their current stance about the proposal – revealed in these documents – would be contradictory to their public discourse.

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