Senior United Nations officials have warned the United States that its instructions to diplomats to covertly collect biometric data on U.N. officials would be violation of U.N. diplomatic immunity and a breach of international law. According to media quoting unnamed U.N. sources, “a formal complaint could follow if and when more information about Washington's secret operation emerges.”
The blowback from the U.N. followed close on the heels of the WikiLeaks whistleblower website’s exposé of sensitive cables from the State Department and denials by U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, that the leak would alter the fundamental nature of U.S. diplomatic engagement the world over.
The reaction by U.N. officials was specifically in the context of one cable, dating from July 2009 and issued in the name of the Secretary of State, which sent to U.S. diplomats in the U.N. a “request for continued DOS (Department of State) reporting of biographic information relating to the UN.”
Under what the State Department describes as the National HUMINT (Human Intelligence) Collection Directive, the Secretary’s office sent this cable to a large number of U.S. embassy officials abroad as well, including the New Delhi embassy.
As per the cable the data that U.S. diplomats were required to collect included such categories as names, position titles and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cell phones, pagers and faxes; telephone directories and e-mail listings; internet and intranet “handles,” internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent flyer account numbers; and even work schedules.
Barely 48 hours after WikiLeaks began trickling out private communications between top diplomats in Washington and U.S. embassies abroad, senior U.N. officials were quoted by The Guardian as saying that they had been taken by surprise at the “unusual extent and detail of the activity in the documents”.
In particular, they said, they had been surprised by the requests for biometric information on high-ranking U.N. officials and the permanent representatives of the Security Council from China, Russia, France and the U.K. Some officials said on Monday that they had made representations to the U.S. government outlining these concerns.
However at a press briefing the U.S. representative to the U.N., Susan Rice, did not directly answer a question on whether the U.S. was actually asking its diplomats to spy on the U.N. leadership.
She said, “Our diplomats are just that – they are diplomats. That is what they do every day... I could not be more proud of them as they conduct the work of the U.S. government and do the work that diplomats do around the world.” She added that in today’s complex world the work of U.S. diplomats in the U.N. and around the world was “indispensible to our national security”.
However shortly after the cable became public, Farhan Haq, Acting Deputy Spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, reportedly said, “The U.N. charter, the Headquarters Agreement and the 1946 Convention contain provisions relating to the privileges and immunities of the organisation.”
He added that the U.N. relied on adherence by its member-states to such undertakings, drawing attention in particular to a clause in the 1946 Convention, according to which “The property and assets of the United Nations, wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation and any other form of interference, whether by executive, administrative, judicial, or legislative action.”