United Nations Employees Under Surveillance: Why Has the UN Failed in Holding Spyware Companies Accountable?

The increased use of surveillance technologies against activists and human rights defenders has become an effective tool in the new arsenal of war crimes obfuscation. States employ such tactics to shield themselves from criticism and to combat those who dare to raise their voices against the war crimes committed by nations.

Spying technologies have been actively targeting activists and human rights defenders during their work, turning into a new tool of war crime obfuscation. States employ these technologies to fortify themselves by suppressing those who dare to speak out against the war crimes committed by nations. One of those who raised their voice against war crimes is Kamel Jendoubi, a Tunisian political activist appointed by the United Nations in 2018 as the head of a council of eminent experts tasked by the Human Rights Council to monitor human rights violations occurring in Yemen during the Yemeni war.

Kamel Jendoubi is a researcher and political activist who previously served as the head of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections in Tunisia. He played a significant role in organizing the first democratic elections in Tunisia in October 2011. Additionally, he has been a member and president of prominent human rights organizations, including the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. He also served as a member of the Executive Council of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.

The team of researchers led by Jendoubi released four reports from 2018 to 2021, providing evidence of war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during their war in Yemen. These reports are available online. Jendoubi suspects that the breach of his phone security occurred due to these reports and doubts Saudi Arabia’s responsibility, especially since it is one of the leading countries that purchased the expensive surveillance technology.

Following the surveillance, a smear campaign was launched against Jendoubi and several institutions by the United Arab Emirates after investigations in 2021 revealed how nations utilized the Pegasus spyware to monitor the phones of journalists and human rights advocates.  “There was a division of roles. The Saudis were spying, and the Emiratis were engaging in reputation-smearing campaigns,” Jendoubi claims. 

However, he doesn’t know how long and when his phone was breached, and he adds that the data related to his work did not leak because the compromised phone was his personal device, not the one he used for work. Nevertheless, this means that all his personal data and conversations were under the surveillance of the Israeli monitoring company. After discovering the breach, he requested the United Nations to file a case against the Israeli company NSO Group, which developed the Pegasus spyware used against him. However, the UN did not pursue the lawsuit, citing policies to protect UN employees worldwide.

In 2021, the Human Rights Council refused to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts for Yemen, led by Kamel Jendoubi. This team is the sole independent entity affiliated with the United Nations that issues reports on human rights violations in the Yemen war. The team considered this decision as a “lack of political will to address the situation in Yemen.”

The Jendoubi Case: Justice Hindered

In 2021, when Jendoubi discovered the breach of his phone, Saudi Arabia reduced its contribution to the UN budget to $436,404,068, compared to $712,621,010 in 2020.

In 2022, a year after the Human Rights Council refused to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, the Saudi Minister of Economy and Planning, Faisal bin Fadel Al Ibrahim, signed an agreement with the UN office in Saudi Arabia titled “UN Framework for Cooperation for Sustainable Development with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2022-2026.” This agreement is seen as aligning the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 with the Kingdom’s vision for the same year. The agreement includes the completion of 212 activities with a cost of $346,032,693, to be spent during the agreement period from the total amount of $390,531,207 paid by the Kingdom to the UN the previous year, with the majority allocated for investment within Saudi Arabia.

Daraj tried to contact the UN Security Council to inquire about the impact of political and economic interventions on UN decisions but did not receive a response.

Apart from the financial influence, Roberto Bissio, coordinator at the Social Watch, an international group that holds governments, the UN, and global organizations accountable, told Daraj that “No legal entity can hold the Israeli company accountable except the Security Council or the International Criminal Court. However, the latter only intervenes in cases of war crimes and genocide. As for the Security Council, it can use the veto to obstruct its decisions. Moreover, it is impossible to lead anyone to prison. In the best case scenario, if countries agree, Israel can be politically punished.”

In any case, these countries remain “rogue states,” according to Jendoubi.

The Financing of the United Nations: Defending Its Employees?

Jendoubi suggests that the reason for the United Nations’ refusal to file this lawsuit is due to the significant contribution of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to funding UN programs. Bissio explains that “UN funding comes from member states that constitute it. These countries pay a quota of money to secure a seat in the United Nations and are excluded if they fail to pay. The amounts paid vary from one country to another according to its economy. Countries like the United States pay a quarter of the United Nations budget collected from contributions, while other countries pay a small amount.”

This mechanism applies to all United Nations organizations worldwide. However, these payments do not constitute the primary source of income for UN organizations. Bissio adds that “in addition to the quotas of contributions from member states, some countries and private sector institutions fund UN programs. Contributions from countries do not account for more than 20 percent of UN funding.” The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, previously proposed increasing this percentage to 20 or 30 percent of UN funding, a proportion that remains low.

UN Financing: A Persistent Quest for Impossible Independence

The work of the United Nations Security Council is determined by member states, which also determine the adopted programs and the distribution of funding. The Security Council consists of 5 permanent members (the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) and 10 elected members.

The funding of member states has previously influenced UN decisions, such as when France refused to fund the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force in the Congo during the Congo War in the 1960s. At the time, France refused to fund this force to safeguard its interests in the African country, before the UN forced it to finance the unit.

The UN experienced a similar situation with Saudi Arabia when it published its annual report on children and armed conflict in 2016, which mentioned the killing of children during the Yemen war before retracting and canceling the accusation following Saudi pressure and the KSA’s threat to suspend its membership in the United Nations.

At the time, the UN claimed that the deletion was temporary, while the results of the research conducted by the organization were reconsidered. After the amendment, the UN clarified that “the warring parties are responsible for killing and maiming children and carrying out attacks on schools and hospitals.” However, the initial retraction demonstrated the Kingdom’s power and its influence over the United Nations, a power that will persist for a long time.

The United Nations Has No Authority in the Virtual World

The United Nations could play a more dynamic role in the virtual world as it represents a space for discussion, bringing together many countries to discuss agreements and treaties that could serve as global laws when signed. The UN’s work does not include any treaties or agreements related to cybersecurity, especially espionage, until today. However, it criminalizes arbitrary interference in private life in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which also guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

Today, the Internet is regulated by a non-profit organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is based in California. This organization is subject to US laws, and the US government dictates its conditions, meaning that it must comply with the laws of the state and its foreign relations.

On the other hand, the United Nations established the Internet Governance Forum, bringing together several countries to discuss the risks of the Internet. Still, it lacks the authority to conclude international treaties that could exert pressure on countries to comply. Guterres also proposed the creation of a digital agreement, which will be discussed in September 2024 at the Summit of the Future.

Guterres’ decision comes a few years late following the Pegasus files of 2021. Questions remain about the effectiveness of these decisions, their enforceability, and their implementation.