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Delhi tilts to anti-snoop vote

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was refused asylum by India

New Delhi, Nov. 27: India will likely vote in support of a UN resolution drafted by Brazil and Germany criticising sweeping surveillance by American intelligence agencies as a violation of human rights, registering its strongest protest yet against a key strategic ally.

The Manmohan Singh government has attracted criticism from political opponents for its reluctance to publicly condemn widespread US surveillance exposed by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, even though India was a key target of the snooping.

But senior officials here have said India will likely vote in favour of the UN resolution authored when its General Assembly discusses it next month.

The resolution was approved for the General Assembly’s debate by a committee of the UN open to all member-states yesterday, despite attempts by the US, Britain and Australia to dilute the text of the document, diplomats said.

“There’s no reason why we should not vote in support of the resolution at the General Assembly,” an official here said. “It fits our concerns, without referring to issues where there could be differences.”

Brazil discussed the resolution with India in October, when external affairs minister Salman Khurshid visited the country, the official said.

Documents leaked by Snowden showed that the NSA spied on India’s embassy in Washington using software that would infiltrate telecommunication systems inside the mission. India is also among the top five nations where telephones were targeted most by the NSA for snooping.

But unlike several other nations on the NSA’s radar that have publicly criticised the US, India has only articulated its concerns in closed-door meetings with top officials of the Barack Obama administration — that was till now.

Brazil and Germany, the authors of the UN resolution, are among nations that have raised the most vocal protests against the surveillance.

The NSA, according to leaked documents, tapped phone conversations of both Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Rousseff called off a visit to the US in protest, and an angry Merkel’s government summoned the US envoy.

But the wording of the resolution and its emphasis on human rights make it diplomatically comfortable for India to support without contradicting its domestic Internet monitoring policy, or damaging ties with the US, the officials said.

The resolution does not specifically mention the US, Britain, Australia or the other members of the ‘Five Eyes’ — Canada and New Zealand — who according to the Snowden documents have networked their intelligence agencies to jointly spy on the rest of the world.

But it strongly criticises the excessive surveillance that hearings in US Congress suggest could effectively target any user of modern telecommunications across the world.

The General Assembly, the resolution states, is “deeply concerned at the negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well as the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights”.

By not naming any nation, India and other nations keen on friendly relations with the US can argue that their vote on the document is on the principle of excessive surveillance hurting human rights — and not based on any anti-American geopolitics. “Such a resolution will get you the maximum possible support — even from the American people,” another official said.

India, officials said, is also in a position to support the resolution because it makes no reference to “Internet governance” — a concept that New Delhi is pushing domestically.

Finally, the resolution sits pat with India’s approach on contentious geopolitical issues — whether it’s any proposed military intervention in Syria, or the NSA snooping — on which it disagrees with the US.

New Delhi airs its differences publicly only at multilateral forums like the United Nations and G-20, while apparently minimising them in statements after bilateral meets with US officials.

“We think that’s simply the most effective way to communicate a message, when it comes to dealing with the world’s biggest superpower,” an official had told this correspondent when the Snowden documents were first reported.

When Obama was lobbying for support to his plan for attacking Syria this September, India made its opposition clear at the G-20, a summit of the world’s top 20 economies where New Delhi knew many others too were apprehensive about a fresh war in West Asia.

Foreign minister Khurshid, who refused to confirm that India had “raised concerns” over the NSA surveillance when he met visiting US Vice-President Joe Biden in July, was much more forthcoming in the company of his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, in Brazilia in October.

“The ministers expressed concern about the reported practices of unauthorised interception of communications and data from citizens, businesses and members of governments, compromising national sovereignty and individual rights,” state the minutes of their meeting on October 15, which both nations made public.