Norway is a global leader when it comes to protecting human rights defenders. It leads related negotiations at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. It funds the work of independent U.N. experts charged with “defending defenders.” And it is using its U.N. Security Council seat to, in Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide’s words, “invite human rights defenders, peacebuilders and other experts to brief the Council” to ensure that it is “as transparent as possible and that important voices are heard before decisions are taken.”
This is all highly laudable, which is what makes the Telenor affair so baffling. In July, “after considering all possible alternatives and events,” Norway’s largely state-owned telecoms provider agreed to sell its Myanmar operations to the Lebanese firm M1 Group. According to the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), M1 is “infamous for its business activities in countries with violent totalitarian and extremist regimes.” In 2012, telco MTN Syria, a subsidiary of MTN in which M1 is the major shareholder, undermined protest leaders by blocking text messages at the behest of the Bashir al-Assad regime. In 2013, MTN installed “lawful surveillance equipment” for its mobile network in South Sudan during a crackdown on government critics by state security forces.
The Myanmar military is now also pressuring companies to implement mandatory surveillance capabilities. It is feared that given its track record, M1 group will hand over user details of some 18.2 million Telenor users to the military junta, placing human rights defenders even more clearly in the crosshairs.
Junta leader Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is well versed in the use of technology as a weapon. Myanmar’s military used Facebook as a tool to spread propaganda and incite genocidal atrocities against the Rohingya. The consequences of Min Aung Hlaing having access to the personal data of millions of Telenor customers – data that could show who users called, when, and for how long, and could enable targeted intercepts on phone calls – would be catastrophic.
Telenor has operated in Myanmar since 2014, a decision that back then, according to the Group, was informed by “a thorough human rights impact assessment as part of the due diligence.” The Norwegian Government holds a 53 percent stake in Telenor.
On February 1 of this year, the Myanmar military attempted a coup d’état. It failed, and some nine months later, the military remains unable to consolidate its control over the country’s territory, infrastructure, or institutions. But its efforts have been bloody. It has employed murder, torture, and sexual violence. It has locked up peaceful protestors. It has raided and razed villages, destroying and looting property. It has set up military tribunals to try civilians, handing down death sentences to children under 18. The military also weaponized a recent resurgent wave of COVID-19 by withholding access to medical treatment, medicines, oxygen, and vaccines. An unknown number of people consequently died and millions have been plunged into poverty.
Both Telenor and Norway have spoken out against these atrocities. And, to its credit, Telenor acted in principled ways following the attempted coup. It pushed back against the military junta’s illegal directives, including its demands that Telenor and other telecoms operators install invasive intercept technology. In so doing, Telenor earned the respect of the international community, of Myanmar civil society, and of its millions of users.
Sadly, the same cannot now be said of its shoddily planned exit. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, in coordination with 474 Myanmar civil society organizations, has lodged a complaint against the sale with the Norwegian National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and, after an initial assessment, the watchdog found merit in the claim. Mediation may well follow. This offers Telenor and the Norwegian government an opportunity to salvage something significantly more valuable than telecoms assets and investments: their reputations.
Telenor says that its decision to sell “was not motivated by financial or strategic objectives,” but guided by its “commitment to its values and standards.” This commitment requires scrutiny. The potential sale of Telenor requires assessment of any adverse human rights impact and prevention or mitigation where they present. On this basis alone, the military junta’s demands for the installation of intercept technology may make the sale altogether untenable. This must be accompanied by rigorous human rights due diligence informed by the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as the OECD Guidelines.
Furthermore, Telenor must hold potential buyers to these same standards, a condition being a blanket refusal to transfer the personal data of users to the military junta. And finally, as SOMO adds, there needs to be meaningful engagement with Myanmar stakeholders, including the Ministry of Communications, Information and Technology of the National Unity Government and Myanmar civil society.
These proposed steps are entirely in keeping with Telenor’s professed compliance with the U.N. Guiding Principles and international law and human rights. They are also consonant with the Norwegian government’s strong commitment to defending human rights, to transparency, and to listening to important voices before taking decisions.
Operating during a crisis is extremely fraught, and dealing with a ruthless regime is treacherous. But, as the 18.2 million Telenor users in Myanmar would confirm, restoring a shattered reputation can prove near impossible.