The U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday called for an end to excessive electronic surveillance and expressed concern at the harm such scrutiny, including spying in foreign states and the mass collection of personal data, may have on human rights.
The call was included in a resolution drafted by Germany and Brazil which the 193-member General Assembly adopted by consensus.
The United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - known as the Five Eyes surveillance alliance - supported the resolution after language that had initially suggested foreign spying could be a human rights violation was weakened to appease them.
The resolution does not name specific countries but comes after former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released details this year of a global spying program by the NSA, sparking international outrage.
General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, unlike resolutions of the 15-nation Security Council. But assembly resolutions that enjoy broad international support can carry significant moral and political weight.
After the resolution was adopted last month by the General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues, U.S. delegate Elizabeth Cousens told the committee: "We firmly believe that privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression must be respected both online and offline."
Cousens said it was imperative that human rights and civil society activists be able to use the Internet freely and without fear of reprisal to protect "dignity, fight against repression, and hold governments, including mine, accountable."
The resolution notes "that while concerns about public security may justify the gathering and protection of certain sensitive information, States must ensure full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law."
It calls on states to review procedures, practices and legislation on communications surveillance and "to establish or maintain existing independent, effective domestic oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency, as appropriate, and accountability for State surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data."
It also asks U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay to present a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and the interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both condemned the widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency. The NSA is accused of accessing tens of thousands of French phone records and monitoring phone calls by Merkel and Rousseff.