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German OECD NCP unwilling to investigate role of German company in human rights violations in Bahrain

Nine months ago, Privacy International, together with the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain Watch and Reporters without Borders, filed complaints with the OECD against Gamma International, a company that exported the FinFisher intrusive surveillance system and Trovicor, a German company (formerly a business unit of Siemens) which sells internet monitoring and mass surveillance products. This week, we’ve learned that the German National Contact Point (NCP) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will not be investigating the most serious allegations included in the complaint against Trovicor.

By failing to investigate the extent of the company’s wrongdoing, the NCP is turning a blind eye to how German made surveillance technology is being used by the Bahraini government to target and suppress pro-democracy voices.

Evidence of complicity in human rights violations

The complaints asked the UK and German NCPs to ascertain whether the surveillance companies breached nearly a dozen of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by exporting surveillance products to Bahrain, where the authorities use such products in human rights abuses.

The complaint detailed how the Bahraini government agencies use surveillance technologies like those supplied by Trovicor, to monitor political opponents, which may lead to their arrest and subsequent maltreatment. The complaint alleged that the products and services that Trovicor provided to the Bahraini government are instrumental in countless human rights abuses in Bahrain, including violations of the right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, but also include arbitrary detention and torture of activists and political opposition.

In 2010, Abdul Ghani Al Khanjar, a Bahraini school administrator and human rights activist had his text messages and personal telephone conversations read out to him during torture sessions in a windowless room two stories below the ground in the Bahraini National Security Apparatus building. This would not have been possible without the technology that generated the transcripts of Mr Al Khanjar's personal communications. Bloomberg reported that the technology was originally sold by Siemens, but subsequently maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) and its divested unit, Trovicor. A spokesperson for Trovicor’s predecessor NSN has also confirmed that Trovicor has been maintaining surveillance technology for Bahraini security and law enforcement agencies.

The German NCP decision

However, the German NCP has decided that this is still not sufficient to demonstrate Trovicor’s presence in Bahrain in 2011, and as a result is only willing to continue with mediation in relation to Trovicor's risk management. The evidence that information gathered from intercepted phone and internet communications may have been used to systematically detain and torture political dissidents and activists and to extort confessions from them would therefore remain outside the scope of the mediation.

We have appealed against the decision and reiterated why there is sufficient evidence to at least warrant further investigation of the complaint by the NCP. The NCP has however decided to stick to its earlier decision.

UK NCP reaches different decision in similar case

In a similar case, Privacy International, ECCHR, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain Watch and Reporters Without Borders filed a complaint with the UK NCP against UK-based company Gamma International.

This complaint was filed practically simultaneously with the German complaint against Trovicor. It asked the UK NCP to investigate the role of Gamma International with regard to its potential complicity in serious human rights abuses in Bahrain, just as the German NCP was asked to do regarding Trovicor. The complaint against Gamma International was already accepted by the UK NCP in June, and the NCP published its Initial Assessment in this case on its website on 21 June 2013. The NCP noted that

“(…) while neither party has provided direct evidence about a supply by Gamma to Bahrain, the evidence provided suggests that the company’s product may have been used against Bahraini activists. The NCP considers that this substantiates the issues in respect of the company’s obligations to do appropriate due diligence and to address impacts.”

The complaint was accepted for further investigation, which was followed by mediation between the complainants and the company. This process is still ongoing.

After the mediation process, the OECD NCP issues a final statement on whether the OECD Guidelines have been breached, and provides recommendations to the defendants on how to avoid further breaches. The NCP will also follow up in order to make sure that the company complies with its recommendations.

What’s next?

The German OECD complaint procedure will end here - it is simply unacceptable to limit the discussion to Trovicors risk management while its alleged role in human rights abuses in Bahrain remains undiscussed. The process once again demonstrates the inherent difficulty in holding an industry to account that by its nature operates under a cloak of secrecy. While it is disappointing, we will continue to seek redress for the victims and to hold Trovicor accountable by all other means possible.