Justice Initiative Files Complaint against Company Involved in 2020 Belarus Internet Shutdown
VIENNA—The Open Society Justice Initiative has brought a complaint before the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against Austria-based telecommunications company A1 Telekom Austria.
During protests around Belarus’ contested 2020 presidential elections that resulted in violence against Belarusian civilians, A1 was responsible for facilitating internet shutdowns through its local subsidiary A1 Belarus, which turned off mobile internet for their subscribers. The complaint cites Telekom Austria’s failure to comply with the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which recommends that companies carry out human rights due diligence processes to avoid contributing to human rights violations.
“Telecommunications companies are increasingly developing stronger tools that can be used by governments to erode civil liberties and control and surveil their citizens. Yet they often operate without transparency and with impunity,” said Mariana Mas, a senior policy officer with the Justice Initiative. “We hope this case helps ensure that corporations that enable authoritarian governments’ use of their technology to stifle fundamental rights are held fully accountable for their actions. The fact that A1 is headquartered in Austria should not allow it to escape responsibility for its role in suppressing democracy in Belarus.”
Following Belarus’ 2020 elections, protestors and international observers accused President Alexander Lukashenko of strong-arm tactics and voting irregularities resulting in a landslide re-election win. On Election Day, August 9, the Belarusian government initiated a nationwide internet shutdown that lasted several days. This was followed by additional sporadic shutdowns over the course of three more months, which coincided with weekly mass pro-democracy protests.
In response to public demonstrations, police used rubber bullets, flash grenades, and physical force, detained tens of thousands of protesters, and allegedly tortured civilians and subjected them to other ill-treatments. A1 Belarus used its networks to throttle mobile internet on behalf of the government until the end of November 2020. The internet shutdowns effectively violated the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and prevented journalists and protesters from publishing and disseminating footage of disproportionate use of force by law enforcement during protests.
In filing the complaint, the Justice Initiative also seeks to prevent telecommunications companies from participating in future internet shutdowns and other rights violations. The Justice Initiative emphasizes the need for companies to adopt proper and efficient human rights due diligence policies and implement human rights impact assessments before and during operations where there has been a record of systematic human rights violations—with special care toward examining business relationships with authoritarian regimes, such as Belarus, and in consultation with relevant stakeholders and affected communities.
“Governments must also adopt domestic and regional legal frameworks that safeguard human rights in the context of high-risk technology exports or subsidiary agreements, especially in regions with problematic rights records,” Mas added. “These failures reveal a more general problem regarding the lack of regional and domestic due diligence laws and failures to implement existing relevant policy and legal frameworks.”