In a landmark ruling for fundamental freedoms in Colombia, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that for over two decades the state government harassed, surveilled, and persecuted members of a lawyer’s group that defends human rights defenders, activists, and indigenous people, putting the attorneys’ lives at risk. 

The ruling is a major victory for civil rights in Colombia, which has a long history of abuse and violence against human rights defenders, including murders and death threats. The case involved the unlawful and arbitrary surveillance of members of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR), a Colombian human rights organization defending victims of political persecution and community activists for over 40 years.

The court found that since at least 1999, Colombian authorities carried out a constant campaign of pervasive secret surveillance of CAJAR members and their families. That state violated their rights to life, personal integrity, private life, freedom of expression and association, and more, the Court said. It noted the particular impact experienced by women defenders and those who had to leave the country amid threat, attacks, and harassment for representing victims.  

The decision is the first by the Inter-American Court to find a State responsible for violating the right to defend human rights. The court is a human rights tribunal that interprets and applies the American Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty ratified by over 20 states in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

In 2022, EFF, Article 19, Fundación Karisma, and Privacy International, represented by Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, filed an amicus brief in the case. EFF and partners urged the court to rule that Colombia’s legal framework regulating intelligence activity and the surveillance of CAJAR and their families violated a constellation of human rights and forced them to limit their activities, change homes, and go into exile to avoid violence, threats, and harassment. 

Colombia's intelligence network was behind abusive surveillance practices in violation of the American Convention and did not prevent authorities from unlawfully surveilling, harassing, and attacking CAJAR members, EFF told the court. Even after Colombia enacted a new intelligence law, authorities continued to carry out unlawful communications surveillance against CAJAR members, using an expansive and invasive spying system to target and disrupt the work of not just CAJAR but other human rights defenders and journalists

In examining Colombia’s intelligence law and surveillance actions, the court elaborated on key Inter-American and other international human rights standards, and advanced significant conclusions for the protection of privacy, freedom of expression, and the right to defend human rights. 

The court delved into criteria for intelligence gathering powers, limitations, and controls. It highlighted the need for independent oversight of intelligence activities and effective remedies against arbitrary actions. It also elaborated on standards for the collection, management, and access to personal data held by intelligence agencies, and recognized the protection of informational self-determination by the American Convention. We highlight some of the most important conclusions below.

Prior Judicial Order for Communications Surveillance and Access to Data

The court noted that actions such as covert surveillance, interception of communications, or collection of personal data constitute undeniable interference with the exercise of human rights, requiring precise regulations and effective controls to prevent abuse from state authorities. Its ruling recalled European Court of Human Rights’ case law establishing thatthe mere existence of legislation allowing for a system of secret monitoring […] constitutes a threat to 'freedom of communication among users of telecommunications services and thus amounts in itself to an interference with the exercise of rights'.” 

Building on its ruling in the case Escher et al. vs Brazil, the Inter-American Court stated that

“[t]he effective protection of the rights to privacy and freedom of thought and expression, combined with the extreme risk of arbitrariness posed by the use of surveillance techniques […] of communications, especially in light of existing new technologies, leads this Court to conclude that any measure in this regard (including interception, surveillance, and monitoring of all types of communication […]) requires a judicial authority to decide on its merits, while also defining its limits, including the manner, duration, and scope of the authorized measure.” (emphasis added) 

According to the court, judicial authorization is needed when intelligence agencies intend to request personal information from private companies that, for various legitimate reasons, administer or manage this data. Similarly, prior judicial order is required for “surveillance and tracking techniques concerning specific individuals that entail access to non-public databases and information systems that store and process personal data, the tracking of users on the computer network, or the location of electronic devices.”  

The court said that “techniques or methods involving access to sensitive telematic metadata and data, such as email and metadata of OTT applications, location data, IP address, cell tower station, cloud data, GPS and Wi-Fi, also require prior judicial authorization.” Unfortunately, the court missed the opportunity to clearly differentiate between targeted and mass surveillance to explicitly condemn the latter.

The court had already recognized in Escher that the American Convention protects not only the content of communications but also any related information like the origin, duration, and time of the communication. But legislation across the region provides less protection for metadata compared to content. We hope the court's new ruling helps to repeal measures allowing state authorities to access metadata without a previous judicial order.

Indeed, the court emphasized that the need for a prior judicial authorization "is consistent with the role of guarantors of human rights that corresponds to judges in a democratic system, whose necessary independence enables the exercise of objective control, in accordance with the law, over the actions of other organs of public power.” 

To this end, the judicial authority is responsible for evaluating the circumstances around the case and conducting a proportionality assessment. The judicial decision must be well-founded and weigh all constitutional, legal, and conventional requirements to justify granting or denying a surveillance measure. 

Informational Self-Determination Recognized as an Autonomous Human Right 

In a landmark outcome, the court asserted that individuals are entitled to decide when and to what extent aspects of their private life can be revealed, which involves defining what type of information, including their personal data, others may get to know. This relates to the right of informational self-determination, which the court recognized as an autonomous right protected by the American Convention. 

“In the view of the Inter-American Court, the foregoing elements give shape to an autonomous human right: the right to informational self-determination, recognized in various legal systems of the region, and which finds protection in the protective content of the American Convention, particularly stemming from the rights set forth in Articles 11 and 13, and, in the dimension of its judicial protection, in the right ensured by Article 25.”  

The protections that Article 11 grant to human dignity and private life safeguard a person's autonomy and the free development of their personality. Building on this provision, the court affirmed individuals’ self-determination regarding their personal information. In combination with the right to access information enshrined in Article 13, the court determined that people have the right to access and control their personal data held in databases. 

The court has explained that the scope of this right includes several components. First, people have the right to know what data about them are contained in state records, where the data came from, how it got there, the purpose for keeping it, how long it’s been kept, whether and why it’s being shared with outside parties, and how it’s being processed. Next is the right to rectify, modify, or update their data if it is inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated. Third is the right to delete, cancel, and suppress their data in justified circumstances. Fourth is the right to oppose the processing of their data also in justified circumstances, and fifth is the right to data portability as regulated by law. 

According to the court, any exceptions to the right of informational self-determination must be legally established, necessary, and proportionate for intelligence agencies to carry out their mandate. In elaborating on the circumstances for full or partial withholding of records held by intelligence authorities, the court said any restrictions must be compatible with the American Convention. Holding back requested information is always exceptional, limited in time, and justified according to specific and strict cases set by law. The protection of national security cannot serve as a blanket justification for denying access to personal information. “It is not compatible with Inter-American standards to establish that a document is classified simply because it belongs to an intelligence agency and not on the basis of its content,” the court said.  

The court concluded that Colombia violated CAJAR members’ right to informational self -determination by arbitrarily restricting their ability to access and control their personal data within public bodies’ intelligence files.

The Vital Protection of the Right to Defend Human Rights

The court emphasized the autonomous nature of the right to defend human rights, finding that States must ensure people can freely, without limitations or risks of any kind, engage in activities aimed at the promotion, monitoring, dissemination, teaching, defense, advocacy, or protection of universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ruling recognized that Colombia violated the CAJAR members' right to defend human rights.

For over a decade, human rights bodies and organizations have raised alarms and documented the deep challenges and perils that human rights defenders constantly face in the Americas. In this ruling, the court importantly reiterated their fundamental role in strengthening democracy. It emphasized that this role justifies a special duty of protection by States, which must establish adequate guarantees and facilitate the necessary means for defenders to freely exercise their activities. 

Therefore, proper respect for human rights requires States’ special attention to actions that limit or obstruct the work of defenders. The court has emphasized that threats and attacks against human rights defenders, as well as the impunity of perpetrators, have not only an individual but also a collective effect, insofar as society is prevented from knowing the truth about human rights violations under the authority of a specific State. 

Colombia’s Intelligence Legal Framework Enabled Arbitrary Surveillance Practices 

In our amicus brief, we argued that Colombian intelligence agents carried out unlawful communications surveillance of CAJAR members under a legal framework that failed to meet international human rights standards. As EFF and allies elaborated a decade ago on the Necessary and Proportionate principles, international human rights law provides an essential framework for ensuring robust safeguards in the context of State communications surveillance, including intelligence activities. 

In the brief, we bolstered criticism made by CAJAR, Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL), and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, challenging Colombia’s claim that the Intelligence Law enacted in 2013 (Law n. 1621) is clear and precise, fulfills the principles of legality, proportionality, and necessity, and provides sufficient safeguards. EFF and partners highlighted that even after its passage, intelligence agencies have systematically surveilled, harassed, and attacked CAJAR members in violation of their rights. 

As we argued, that didn’t happen despite Colombia’s intelligence legal framework, rather it was enabled by its flaws. We emphasized that the Intelligence Law gives authorities wide latitude to surveil human rights defenders, lacking provisions for prior, well-founded, judicial authorization for specific surveillance measures, and robust independent oversight. We also pointed out that Colombian legislation failed to provide the necessary means for defenders to correct and erase their data unlawfully held in intelligence records. 

The court ruled that, as reparation, Colombia must adjust its intelligence legal framework to reflect Inter-American human rights standards. This means that intelligence norms must be changed to clearly establish the legitimate purposes of intelligence actions, the types of individuals and activities subject to intelligence measures, the level of suspicion needed to trigger surveillance by intelligence agencies, and the duration of surveillance measures. 

The reparations also call for Colombia to keep files and records of all steps of intelligence activities, “including the history of access logs to electronic systems, if applicable,” and deliver periodic reports to oversight entities. The legislation must also subject communications surveillance measures to prior judicial authorization, except in emergency situations. Moreover, Colombia needs to pass regulations for mechanisms ensuring the right to informational self-determination in relation to intelligence files. 

These are just some of the fixes the ruling calls for, and they represent a major win. Still, the court missed the opportunity to vehemently condemn state mass surveillance (which can occur under an ill-defined measure in Colombia’s Intelligence Law enabling spectrum monitoring), although Colombian courts will now have the chance to rule it out.

In all, the court ordered the state to take 16 reparation measures, including implementing a system for collecting data on violence against human rights defenders and investigating acts of violence against victims. The government must also publicly acknowledge responsibility for the violations. 

The Inter-American Court's ruling in the CAJAR case sends an important message to Colombia, and the region, that intelligence powers are only lawful and legitimate when there are solid and effective controls and safeguards in place. Intelligence authorities cannot act as if international human rights law doesn't apply to their practices.  

When they do, violations must be fiercely investigated and punished. The ruling elaborates on crucial standards that States must fulfill to make this happen. Only time will tell how closely Colombia and other States will apply the court's findings to their intelligence activities. What’s certain is the dire need to fix a system that helped Colombia become the deadliest country in the Americas for human rights defenders last year, with 70 murders, more than half of all such murders in Latin America.