10th Jun 2023

EU under scrutiny for bankrolling surveillance in Africa

  • Niamey, Niger. The EU's mission there was extended until 2024 (Photo: Jean Rebiffe)
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A verdict is imminent on the EU Commission, for projects it financed to help dubious governments in Africa spy on their own people.

The money comes from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, part of which is being used to develop mass-scale biometric identity systems across the African continent.

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"We're expecting to have an outcome soon," said Ioannis Kouvakas, a senior legal officer at the London-based Privacy International, an NGO, earlier this week.

Niger, for instance, received over €11m for surveillance drones and a wiretapping centre, among other equipment.

The underlying premise is to help national authorities crack down on migration and possible terror threats, either through helping them create tools such as data-retention laws or by bankrolling surveillance projects.

But fears are also mounting such governments may then use it against their political dissidents, human right defenders, and others.

The case was lodged in 2021 with the European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, a watchdog that can fault the EU institutions for maladministration.

It seeks to determine whether the EU commission had carried out any studies into human rights implications prior to helping these states.

Kouvakas says they are confident the ombudsman "will embrace our concerns".

'Do no harm' principle

The EU has also brokered deals with the Libyan authorities, as part of a broader plan to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from leaving the country by boat towards Europe.

This includes some €42m for a border control project in 2019, aimed at preventing migrants from fleeing.

However, on Tuesday, the UN rights body said there is no meaningful access to human rights protection for migrants within Libya.

"Migrants are effectively trapped in Libya where they continue to face serious threats to their lives, safety and dignity," it said, in a report.

But for its part, the commission claims it adheres to a "do no harm" principle in Libya.

The commission says this was confirmed by an independent contractor, tasked to ensure its policies follow the principle.

"So far, the contractor didn't report any violations of do no harm principle directly related to all costs by our trust fund programmes," said the EU commission in April.

But when EUobserver in May asked for the name of the contractor and a copy of its report via an access to document request, the EU commission refused.

Maciej Popowski, a senior EU commission official, in a letter in July said that there was no overriding public interest.

An appeal has since been launched, but without any closure. And the legal deadline for the EU commission to respond to the appeal expired twice.

When asked to look into the delayed appeals, the commission did not respond.

Privacy International, along with a handful of other NGOs, appear to have run into similar difficulties in the lead up to their 2021 case against the commission.

Kouvakas says they too filed access to document requests, although some EU commission departments never responded.

Frontex and EEAS

They have also since filed two other complaints with the ombudsman, asking the same questions on human right impacts.

One targets the EU's diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, and its missions in Palestine, Somalia, Niger, Mali, Libya, and Iraq.

And the second targets the EU's border police, Frontex and its cooperation with the Libyan coast guard.

O'Reilly opened both investigations on 5 October.

The complaints were filed by Privacy International, Access Now, Sea-Watch, BVMN, Homo Digitalis, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

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