European Union legislators asked the EU to investigate whether companies have aided human rights violations by selling surveillance gear to repressive governments.
Marietje Schaake, who is a Dutch member of the European Parliament, and five of her colleagues in the assembly, requested the probe today after Bloomberg News reported that a monitoring system sold and maintained by European companies had generated text-message transcripts used in the interrogation of a human rights activist tortured in Bahrain.
The legislators made their request in writing to EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is also vice president of the European Commission, the 27-nation EU’s executive body in Brussels.
The probe would determine whether any European security and communications companies contributed to “human rights violations, in particular in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Iran,” the request says.
The surveillance technology in Bahrain was sold by Siemens AG, and later maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, followed by NSN’s divested unit, Munich-based Trovicor GmbH, Bloomberg reported yesterday, citing Ben Roome, a Nokia Siemens spokesman.
Egypt, Syria and Yemen also purchased monitoring centers from the business now known as Trovicor, according to two people familiar with the installations. The equipment plays a surveillance role in at least 12 Middle Eastern and North African nations, they said.
Supporting Export Ban
Barbara Lochbihler, a German member of the EU Parliament who signed the letter and sits on the Subcommittee on Human Rights, said she plans to speak with company officials about the uses of their products. She supports a European export ban of such technology to regimes that could abuse it, she said.
“As a deputy from Bavaria I´m very interested in the follow up of what happens with the company Trovicor and also with Siemens,” she said in an e-mail. Munich, where Trovicor and Siemens are based, is the Bavarian capital.
The other legislators asking for an inquiry are the Netherlands’ Hans van Baalen, Estonia’s Tunne Kelam, the U.K.’s Sarah Ludford and Slovenia’s Ivo Vajgl, according to a copy of the letter provided by Schaake’s office.
The European Commission will revisit the EU’s corporate responsibility strategy this fall, said Cristina Arigho, a spokeswoman for the commission. She said the EU is also considering how to support the implementation of United Nations principles on business and human rights, passed in June, which say corporations have a duty to respect human rights.
For Law Enforcement
Monitoring centers are sold around the globe by many suppliers, and form the heart of what the industry refers to as lawful interception surveillance systems. The equipment is marketed largely to law enforcement agencies for tracking terrorists and other criminals.
The clusters of computers typically tap into communications networks, scan and sort calls and data -- sometimes by keywords or voice recognition -- and send the results to operators at police and intelligence agencies.
The company behind the Bahraini monitoring center started in 1993 as the voice and data-recording unit of Siemens. In 2007 it became part of Nokia Siemens Networks, the world’s second biggest maker of wireless communications equipment.
NSN, a joint venture with Espoo, Finland-based Nokia Oyj, sold the unit, known as Intelligence Solutions, in March 2009. It’s now called Trovicor.
Sold to Iran
Siemens and Trovicor declined to comment for the Bloomberg investigation; Siemens said it no longer had records of the business, while Trovicor said contracts prevented it from disclosing clients or countries where it does business.
NSN said a major reason it sold the business was the risk of human rights abuses. The company has since established a human rights policy and due diligence program, Roome said.
In 2009, the company disclosed that it delivered a monitoring center to Iran, prompting hearings in the European Parliament, proposals for tighter restrictions on U.S. trade with Iran, and an international “No to Nokia” boycott campaign.
NSN issued a statement yesterday reiterating its concern for human rights.
“Nokia Siemens Networks has stated clearly that such abuse, if it has occurred, is wrong and is contrary to its Code of Conduct and accepted international norms,” the statement said.
“Partly as a result of the issues raised by the potential for misuse of its technology, Nokia Siemens Networks is the first telecommunications equipment provider to adopt a human rights policy specifically addressing the issues of new technologies and privacy, access to information, and freedom of expression,” it said.
NSN’s Roome and Siemens spokesman Wolfram Trost declined to comment on the inquiry request. Birgitt Fischer-Harrow, Trovicor’s head of marketing communications, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment. There was no response at her office phone.
The Netherlands’ Schaake helped sponsor and pass a nonbinding parliamentary resolution in February 2010 that called for the European Commission to ban exports of such technology to regimes that could abuse it.
The Bahraini government said it is taking allegations of abuse seriously and an independent committee is investigating alleged torture.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain does not advocate the abuse of human rights,” Luma Bashmi of the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority wrote in an e-mail yesterday to Bloomberg.
“The committee will investigate any allegations regarding the Bahrain Defense Forces” and security operations and submit its report by October 30, she wrote. “At that point the government of Bahrain can and will address all of these issues in a just manner.”