Coalition letter to the UN Human Rights Council on Pegasus

September 30, 2021

During the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council, over 90 civil society organisations called on Member States to urgently denounce and mandate independent investigations into the situation of human rights violations facilitated by the sale, export, transfer, and use of surveillance technology.

18th Session of Human Rights Council © United Nations Photo, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


We, the undersigned civil society organizations and independent experts, call on Member States of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) to take urgent action at the ongoing 48th regular session of the HRC to denounce the unfolding and unprecedented scale of human rights violations by States facilitated by the use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and provide immediate, robust support for impartial and transparent inquiries into the abuses.

We are deeply alarmed by the Pegasus Project revelations, a major investigation conducted by Forbidden Stories, and a consortium of 16 media organizations, alongside Amnesty International who was a technical partner in the investigations.  The investigation was based on a leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential targets of NSO Group surveillance technology, a list which includes journalists, activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, world leaders, and civil society actors. So far, at least 180 journalists in 20 countries were identified as potential targets of Pegasus spyware between 2016 to June 2021.   

Adding to the revelations, further cases of targeted surveillance continue to unfold. The most recent victim targeted by Pegasus spyware is the Budapest-based photojournalist Dániel Németh. According to an investigation by media organization Direkt36 and forensic analysis by Citizen Lab, independently validated by  Amnesty International, two of Németh’s phones were hacked by a government client of the NSO in early July 2021. Németh is not the only Hungarian journalist to be hacked using Pegasus, Amnesty International's forensic checks confirmed that two of Direkt36 investigative journalists, András Szabó and Szabolcs Panyi, and another investigative reporter, Brigitta Csikász, were also hacked in 2019.

The National Cybersecurity Agency of France (ANSSI) confirmed that digital traces of the Pegasus spyware have been found on the phones of three French journalists: an investigative journalist at Mediapart Lénaïg Bredoux, the website’s director Edwy Plenel, and a senior member of staff at France 24. Previously, the phone numbers of France’ President, Emmanuel Macron, former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, and 14 serving ministers appeared in the leaked data of the Pegasus Project.

Further shocking evidence unearthed by the Pegasus Project shows that friends and family members of the slain and dismembered Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, were also targeted with Pegasus spyware before and after his murder despite the NSO Group’s continuous denial of involvement. According to Amnesty International's forensic analysis, the iPhone of Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, was targeted and successfully infected four days after Khashoggi's murder, and multiple times in the subsequent days. Forensics checks also confirmed that his wife Hanan Elatr was targeted with the spyware, as was his friend, and former director-general of Al Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar whose phone was hacked. Other potential targets include his son Abdullah Khashoggi, and the British human rights lawyer Rodney Dixon who represented Cengiz in filing legal action against the murder of Khashoggi.

Media reports noted that at least 35 journalists were selected for potential targeting with  Pegasus by the Moroccan authorities, three of whom were prosecuted under questionable circumstances, subjected to state-sanctioned campaigns of intimidation and harassment, and imprisoned. Taoufik Bouachrine, editor of Akhbar El-Youm newspaper, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of human trafficking, sexual assault, rape, and prostitution. His colleague Soulaimane Raissouni was also arrested on sexual assault charges in May 2020, and was sentenced to five years in prison on July 9, 2021. Journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi was also sentenced on July 19, 2021 to six years in prison on dubious charges of espionage and rape. In June 2020, Amnesty International revealed that Radi was targeted using NSO spyware just three days after NSO Group released its human rights policy.

This is not the first time the NSO’s Pegasus spyware has been linked to human rights abuses. In 2016, Citizen Lab investigated one of the early uses of Pegasus by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to spy on prominent Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, who is serving 10 years in prison in solitary confinement and under inhumane conditions. The failure of States to protect people’s rights and uphold their obligations has fostered a culture of total impunity and allowed private digital surveillance companies as perpetrators of human rights violations to flourish with no transparency or accountability.

Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council cannot allow for this staggering widespread surveillance to continue unchallenged and unchecked. As a group of U.N. Special Procedures recently warned: “It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone.” Despite the mounting evidence of the spyware’s links to human rights abuses, the NSO Group continues to repeat its false claim that its spyware is only used for legitimate purposes like investigating crime and terror. The secretive surveillance industry must be held to account.

In light of these grave concerns, we urge Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council to specifically denounce these abuses and mandate comprehensive measures to investigate and prevent further violations linked to the sale, export, and use of Pegasus spyware and cases of targeted surveillance.

Council Members should offer adequate financial and technical support to the U.N. Special Procedures, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and any other bodies relevant and able to execute the necessary inquiries. Member States must cooperate, enabling investigators to have adequate access to any persons, evidence, and materials requested, and ensure that they are able to travel and operate safely and without fear of reprisal or obstruction. The findings of these inquiries should be reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, and provide recommendations on the relevant global human rights standards and regulatory frameworks that govern the development, sale, and transfer of surveillance technology, as well as any gaps in the existing mechanisms or their implementation at the local, national, and international levels, in order to prevent and mitigate the threats of surveillance technologies.

Until and unless such recommendations are developed and adopted, we reiterate the previous call made by U.N. human rights experts and civil society groups on governments to immediately implement a global moratorium on the sale, export, transfer, and use of private surveillance technology until States have adopted robust legal safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, invasion of their privacy, and threats to their freedom of expression, assembly, and association.                 



Access Now, Acción Constitucional, Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID), AfricTivistes, Africa, Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF), ALQST for Human Rights, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC), Argentina, Barracón Digital – Honduras, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, Body and Data, CLEX, Center for Digital Resilience, Centre d’Actions pour le Développement (CAD-Congo Brazzaville), Centro de Derechos de Mujeres Honduras, Civil Liberties Union for Europe, Código Sur, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), DefendDefenders, Derechos Digitales - América Latina, Digital Rights Foundation, Digital Rights Kashmir, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Equality Now, ESOHumanRights, European Center for Democracy & Human Rights, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Fundación Acceso, Fundación Datos Protegidos, Fundación, Fundación Karisma, Global Voices, Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Heartland Initiative, Humano Derecho Radio Estación, freedom Uganda Network, IFEX, Internet Sans Frontières, Iraqi Network for Digital Rights – INSMnetwork, Jordan Open Source Association – JOSA, Kandoo, Kijiji Yeetu, Kenya,, Manushya Foundation, Masaar- Technology and Law Community, Media Diversity Institute – Armenia, Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), MENA Rights Group, Metamorphosis, Foundation for Internet and Society, Miaan Group, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Oakland Privacy, OpenMedia, Organization of the Justice Campaign, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project – OCCRP, Paradigm Initiative (PIN), PEN America, Pen Iraq, Privacy International, Ranking Digital Rights, Red Line for Gulf (RL4G), Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D), RedesAyuda, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Restore The Fourth, Sassoufit collective, SeguDigital, Simply Secure, SMEX, SOAP, SocialTIC, Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), S.T.O.P. - The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Sursiendo, Comunicación y Cultura Digital, The Freedom Initiative, The Tor Project, Transparency International, Ubunteam, Usuarios Digitales – Ecuador, Venezuela inteligente, Videre est Credere, Visualizing Impact, Wikimedia France, Women ICT Advocacy Group (WIAG), Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC), Nigeria, Zaina Foundation, 7amleh – Arab Center for Social Media Advancement


Camille Francois, Affiliate, Harvard Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harlo Holmes, Freedom of the Press Foundation, John Scott-Railton, Senior Researcher, Citizen Lab, at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Sarah McKune, Siena Anstis, Senior Legal Advisor, Citizen Lab, at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

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