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Reprieve vs. British Telecommunications plc

Case overview

Date filed 19 August 2014
Current status Rejected
Issue Facilitating US drone strikes in Yemen by BT Group
Summary of the case Reprieve alleges that BT has contributed to gross human rights violations by providing key communications infrastructure from a US military base in the UK to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is the covert centre from which armed US drones carry out lethal missions over Yemen.

The complainant furthermore alleges that BT is facilitating the US drone programme by providing the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the National Security Agency (NSA) with mass surveillance infrastructure through wiretaps and compromised optical fibre networks.

The complaint alleges BT has not shown what human rights due diligence it carried out before entering into the contract with the US government and has not sought to prevent or mitigate human rights abuses.

Reprieve filed the complaint on behalf of a number of affected individuals who have lost relatives in drone strikes or continue to be impacted.

Reprieve requests the NCP to investigate BTs possible contribution to the gross violations of international law and human rights that the use of drones in non-war zones entails.

Developments/Outcome The UK NCP rejected the first complaint filed in 2013 by arguing that Reprieve had not substantiated a link between BTs communication services and the impact of the US drone operations.

BT argued its services were of a general character and that it is not a party to information about their exact uses. The NCP also accepted BTs evidence, which the NCP said showed a general level of due diligence has been conducted. A separate policy note on due diligence was released in tandem with the NCP decision, flagging the need for the NCP to clarify when a heightened standard of due diligence should apply to a company and recognising that the current standard requiring “proof of a specific link may be beyond the capacity of most complaints”.

Reprieve maintains that BTs assertions were taken at face value without any substantiating evidence, and that a greater onus was placed on them to substantiate the complaint. According to Reprieve, the NCP should have asked BT whether it carried out any risk-based due diligence and whether it had mitigated, avoided, or prevented any adverse human rights impacts. Reprieve notes that civil society should not be relied upon to provide precise links between corporate activities and human rights abuses, especially when a company refuses all cooperation and disclosure.

On 15 May 2014, Reprieves request for judicial review by the UK Treasury Solicitors Department was denied. Reprieve was told their only recourse is to use the procedures provided by the NCP. After the UK NCP rejected Reprieves initial complaint, journalists assisted in uncovering fresh evidence suggesting BT had constructed the fibre-optic cable with full knowledge that the communications line would utilise Defense Information Systems Network routers and KG-340 encryption devices. These elements of the fibre-optic cable were installed to fit specific NSA requirements to ensure the security necessary to process intelligence data and to issue commands for drones.

Based on this new evidence, Reprieve filed a second complaint with the NCP on 19 August 2014. In this complaint reprieve alleges that both by contracting to provide the fibre-optics infrastructure for the US drone programme and by facilitating mass surveillance by intelligence agencies, BT has failed to respect human rights. Meanwhile, BT continues to ignore evidence of its complicity with the US drone programme.

On 26 September 2014, the NCP asked Reprieve to split its complaint into two separate complaints. This resulted in a third related complaint filed in October 2014 that solely focuses on BTs collaboration with intelligence agencies to implement mass surveillance programmes that have been acknowledged to feed directly into drone targeting.

In January 2015, the UK NCP decided to reject the two complaints that were submitted in August and October 2014. According to the UK NCP Reprieve could not substantiated its allegations and has not offered any new direct knowledge of the companys link to the impacts, but relied on new information from generally available sources.

With regard to the allegations that BT knowingly provided fibre-optics infrastructure for the US drone programme, the NCP assesses that it appears that the cable in question is a general purpose product. On the basis of the information submitted the NCP could not determine that the cable was necessary or designed specifically for drone operations. Given this, the NCP did assess BT cables proximity to the drone operations was significant. The NCP further considers that it had not been offered information that findings of international authorities or UK government policies should have suggested to BT that enhanced due diligence was warranted in supplying a general product to this customers.
Relevant OECD Guidelines
Case keywords Human rights

NCP Information

NCP name National Contact Point United Kingdom
NCP address 1-19 Victoria Street SW1H 0ET London, United Kingdom
NCP website www.berr.gov.uk
Other NCPs involved

Complainant

NGO

Company Information

Company responsible BT
Company address
Company website
Company in violation
Country of operations Djibouti
Other companies involved

Timeline of developments

Date Actor Action Description Document
10 February 2015 National Contact Point United Kingdom reject Initial Assessment by the UK NCP of the complaint from Reprieve against BT for their services provided to the US defence agency. download pdf (312Kb)  
10 October 2014 BT file On 26 September 2014, the NCP asked Reprieve to split its complaint into two separate complaints. This resulted in a third related complaint filed in October 2014 that solely focuses on BTs collaboration with intelligence agencies to implement mass surveillance programmes that have been acknowledged to feed directly into drone targeting. download pdf (141Kb)  
19 August 2014 Reprieve file Reprieve filed a complaint against BT and is awaiting the UK NCPs initial assessment. download pdf (137Kb)  

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