7-12-2012By Marshall Thompson and Samane Hemmat
Business and Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity Program
Wikileaks is at it again – this time releasing more than two million e-mails stolen from Syrian officials, ministries, and companies. And the recent tranche of correspondence, published on July 5, brings more bad news for one Italian company.
According to the e-mails, technology supplied by Italian defense and communications giant Finmeccanica may have facilitated the Assad’s regime bloody crackdown. The Italian government owns 30 percent of the company, which is also one of Britain’s largest defense suppliers. Selex, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, contracted with the Syrian police through Intracom, a Greek telecom.
The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights say that companies should conduct human rights due diligence before entering into a contract. Though the Guiding Principles were published in 2011, they were a consolidation of best practices in business and human rights. It is not clear if Finmeccanica conducted anything like due diligence before entering into a contract with Syrian police in 2008. Syria’s well-documented human rights problems should have raised serious concerns.
The Tetra technology that Finmeccanica sold to the Syrian police provides encrypted radio communication from ground vehicles and helicopters. At the time this was classified as dual-use technology, but Finmeccanica said that it was designed specifically for civilian emergency responders. Proper human rights due diligence would have gone beyond what the technology was strictly designed for and looked at how it would actually be used. Finmeccanica should have weighed the technology’s benefit against its potential to enable human rights abuses.
Finmeccanica missed a number of other opportunities to ensure human rights were protected. In 2011, as the Syrian government violently cracked down on protests, the Syrian police asked for significantly more encrypted radio systems. Such an increase may have been to facilitate the evacuation and treatment of the wounded, but it could just as easily have been to facilitate widespread and systematic attacks on civilians.
Later that year, a Selex employee explained that shipments of the equipment for the helicopter radios were delayed because they contained parts manufactured in the United States, where sanctions prohibited their export to Syria. The sanctions should have raised red flags, but instead of severing the contract, the Selex employee proposed either to find a non-American manufacturer or to simply remove the part from the shipment.
The story doesn’t end there. As recently as February of this year, an email recounts the arrival of Selex engineers in Syria to train officials in the use of Tetra systems in helicopters. The Italian newspaper L’Espresso confirmed that those helicopters had a key role in suppression: “Machine-gunning from the air against the rebels.”
Here at home, the U.S. government has recognized the role that businesses play in enabling atrocities. In April 2012, the Obama administration took a positive step to prevent the use of U.S. technology in Syrian violence by signing Executive Order (E.O.) Number 13606, better known as the GHRAVITY sanctions. The GHRAVITY E.O. targets the provision and use of information and communications technology to facilitate computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human rights abuses by or on behalf of the Government of Syria or Iran. Furthermore, the GHRAVITY E.O. threatens to punish, among others, non-U.S. companies deemed to have engaged in these activities. These businesses would be denied access to the U.S. commercial and financial sector.
It’s good to see the U.S. government such steps. Now it’s time for businesses to follow. Businesses have a responsibility to promote and protect human rights no matter where they operate. In the case of Syria, Finmeccanica failed to live up to its responsibility.
Human Rights First is engaged in several multi-stakeholder efforts to develop human rights standards for companies doing business around the world. To see our previous work on dual-use technology click here.