PEN American Center is deeply concerned about allegations by Edward Snowden that human rights organizations have been directly targeted by U.S. and UK spy agencies’ surveillance programs. These allegations came in Snowden’s testimony on April 8, 2014, before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Speaking via video conference at a parliamentary hearing on mass surveillance in Strasbourg, Snowden stated that “the NSA has in fact specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members in a number of purely civil or human rights organizations […] including domestically within the borders of the United States.”

“As a human rights organization that works closely with many other PEN Centers and human rights defenders all over the world, the prospect that our own and our colleagues’ communications may be monitored is deeply troubling. The United States government holds itself out as an ally of civil society organizations and human rights activists and needs to respect the privacy we need to carry out our work,” said PEN American Center Executive Director Suzanne Nossel.

“Threatened writers turn to PEN for solidarity and support in their darkest moments. They should not have to worry about their communications being monitored or intercepted.  Such fears would leave them even more alone when they most need help.”

PEN has long feared that the UK and U.S. governments have targeted human rights organizations for surveillance and challenged the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs in a lawsuit that was dismissed by the Supreme Court because PEN and colleague organizations could not prove that they had, in fact, been under surveillance. Snowden’s allegations, if true, substantiate these fears. Furthermore, Snowden’s allegations raise the additional concern that information about human rights groups’ communications is being shared with other governments, potentially putting human rights defenders, and those they support and serve, at grave risk.

PEN strongly condemns the exploitation by governments of digital technologies to spy on human rights organizations and individual human rights defenders and believes “all persons have the right to be free from government surveillance of digital media” as enshrined in the PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom. PEN is concerned that the surveillance Edward Snowden described not only violates basic free expression norms but also threatens the very structures that seek to safeguard and advance those rights. 

PEN calls for the U.S. and UK governments to immediately cease any illegitimate surveillance of human rights organizations and individual writers, provide full transparency regarding the scope of their surveillance programs and how the information collected is used and shared, and conduct a full investigation into these allegations.