RightsCon Debrief: Towards a rights-respecting global cybercrime treaty

This is the second of three articles drafted by the WIII Initiative’s summer researchers, reflecting on sessions they attended at this year’s virtual RightsCon.

On December 27 2019, the United Nations General Assembly passed a Russian government sponsored Resolution for a new UN cybercrime treaty, with eighty eight countries voting in favour. Russia’s human rights record alone is cause to be suspicious of this initiative, but a careful look at the treaty’s language reveals that it poses a grave threat to human rights online. The problems include the use of vague language that can be interpreted by governments to criminalize a wide range of behaviours online as well as scant recognition of the importance of international human rights. Most countries who supported the Resolution had strong linkages to authoritarian practices while those who were against it were mostly Western countries in support of an open and free Internet.

Setting this as a background, a RightsCon panel titled “UNdoing progress and rights with a new global cybercrime treaty?” looked to engage with the challenges posed by the Russian-backed Resolution. The panel was moderated by Allison Peters, Deputy Director of the Cyber Enforcement Initiative at Third Way and included experts on cybercrime policies including Aleisha Arnusch (Cybercrime Coordinator, Global Affairs Canada, Government of Canada), Lani Cossette (Senior Director and Chief of Staff, UN Affairs, Microsoft), Arindrajit Basu (Research Manager, Centre for Internet and Society), Joyce Hakmeh (Senior Research Fellow, International Security Programme; Co-Editor, Journal of Cyber Policy, Chatham House), and 'Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san (Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative).

Joyce Hakmeh started the discussion by giving a background of the Russian-backed Resolution as divided between United States and Russian allies. Those who were in support were chiefly China and Russia and others who were against it were the United States, the European Union and Canada. Joyce stated that the countries supporting the Resolution have a long history of human rights violations including repressive information controls, and a tendency towards promoting nationally autonomous Internet architecture. The major argument espoused by these countries is that the Internet needs to respect state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference and that countries should be free to deal with cybercrime challenges as they deem fit, including by criminalising online behaviour that they view as problematic.

From a government perspective, Aleisha Arnusch spoke about the motivation of the Canadian government to oppose the Resolution. She stated that the government rallied other countries on the need to work more with an existing international framework on cybercrime -- the Budapest Convention. The focus on the Convention was because it provided an opportunity for international cooperation on cybercrime, but with a parallel recognition of the importance of human rights protections.

Turning to a Global South perspective on the developments, Arindrajit Basu spoke to the motivation of the Indian government to support the problematic Resolution. He explained that India has the third highest incidence of cyberattacks in the world. He also noted that there were a number of complex foreign policy considerations at play, but that his government’s vote was not an attempt to align themselves with any particular ideological bloc. He also explained that vibrant human rights community was capable of holding the government to account.

From the private sector, Lani Cossette shared that Microsoft has been supportive of the Budapest Convention right from the start, and that the company believes in the importance of rigorous consideration of human rights protections while debating global cybernorms. 'Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san from Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African organisation that works on digital rights, explained that the African countries that had voted for the Resolution had terrible human rights records, both online and offline, and suggested that a cybercrime treaty that borders the Internet under the guise of fighting crime, will only strengthen authoritarian practices online in the region.

Towards the end of the panel discussion, and in an effort to contextualize the challenges posed by the Russian-backed Resolution, the speakers agreed that the mistakes the of the past must not be repeated in the future. The fight for ensuring an open and free Internet, which the future of democracy depends on, must not be sacrificed at the altar of authoritarianism. Therefore, the conversation for a new cybercrime treaty must first be centred on human rights protection which can only be made possible by ensuring that the process for the adoption of any form of treaty on the subject matter is diverse, open and rigorous.