EU watchdog probes Frontex & EEAS support to non-EU states to develop surveillance

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By Alice Tidey
Two children disembark with other migrants and refugees from a Norwegian Frontex patrol vessel on Greek island of Lesbos, March 22, 2016.
Two children disembark with other migrants and refugees from a Norwegian Frontex patrol vessel on Greek island of Lesbos, March 22, 2016.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

The EU's watchdog has opened investigations into the bloc's border and diplomatic agencies over concerns they might not have carried out necessary human rights risk and impact assessments before supporting third countries in the development of surveillance capabilities.

Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly opened her investigations into Frontex and the European External Action Service (EEAS) last week following complaints from NGOs including Privacy International, Access Now, Sea-Watch, BVMN, Homo Digitalis, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

O'Reilly called on Frontex to clear up whether it carries out any due diligence assessments or human rights risk and impact assessments before it decides to transfer surveillance capabilities to non-EU countries.

These include capacity building and training in surveillance techniques and the transfer of surveillance equipment.

She also specifically referenced a training exercise the border agency has provided to the Libyan General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS), demanding to know whether an assessment of human rights risks was made prior. 

Bérénice Gaudin, advocacy officer at Sea Watch, has welcomed the investigation, saying in a statement that "for the past years, we have been witnessing Frontex’s inhumane cooperation with the so-called Libyan Coast Guard which led to illegal pullbacks of thousands of individuals to Libya. 

"We recently sued Frontex for its lack of transparency. Our message is clear: we are watching and we will continue to fight Frontex’s border practices through all possible legal ways. Today and in the future," she added.

O'Reilly meanwhile told the EU's diplomatic agency EEAS that she opened the probe over concerns it failed to carry out human rights risk and impact assessments before providing support to third countries in drafting laws in relation to surveillance, cybercrime and cyber-enabled crime or before transferring tools and equipment relevant for surveillance or to share intelligence.

She also demanded EEAS share several documents with her office including the memorandum of understanding concluded between the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Lybia and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development and reports issued by the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy in Palestine, Somalia, Niger, Mali, Libya, and Iraq.

"The EU cannot continue to undermine human rights outside of its borders under the guise of fighting terrorism and curbing migration," Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy Manager at Access Now, argued in a statement welcoming the investigations.

"Surveillance technologies and draconian cybercrime laws are at the crux of rising digital authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa region, and the EU should not sponsor this trend."

Both agencies have until the end of December to provide an answer.