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TeliaSonera’s troubles mount; considers expanding into Burma

5:03pm | 19 December 2012 | by Jeff Landale, English

What’s going on with TeliaSonera?

Many multinational telecoms struggle to balance their human rights responsibilities -- enshrined in the UN’s Ruggie Framework -- with the realities of working in politically oppressive environments. However, TeliaSonera seems to be having more trouble than most.

Swedish/Finnish multinational telecom TeliaSonera has found itself accused of a complicated mix of corruption charges and complicity in human rights abuses. The solutions pushed by civil society groups over the past year could help the company on both fronts. Above all, the company needs to put urgent actions above words, and prioritize transparency with the public above internal maneuvers.

TeliaSonera is dealing with allegations on two fronts. Firstly, Swedish TV news program Uppdrag Granskning uncovered TeliaSonera’s involvement with oppressive regimes in countries like Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan, where it is the major mobile operator and broadband provider. Reporters spoke with advocates for democracy, union members, political dissidents, and journalists -- all at risk for reprisal by being interviewed -- who suffered human rights abuses after TeliaSonera allowed security forces access to private and sensitive communications and data.

Secondly, an ongoing corruption probe by Swedish authorities investigating allegations that TeliaSonera bribed close associates and the elder daughter of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leader.

In September, TeliaSonera CEO Lars Nyberg issued a statement denying these allegations. “TeliaSonera did not bribe anyone. TeliaSonera did not engage in money laundering.” However, the most recent report by the Swedish investigative program, titled “TeliaSonera and the Dictator’s Daughter," features the testimony of two TeliaSonera officials confirming the allegations, and also cites US diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks confirming the situation.

Unconnected with their operations in the CIS region, TeliaSonera managers are under investigation for accepting bribes from a computer company.

TeliaSonera’s Response

Following the allegations of improper business dealings in Uzbekistan, there has been a shakeup of TeliaSonera’s top management. The chairman of the company has announced his resignation while the two managers involved in the bribery case have been suspended while they are under investigation by Swedish authorities. Responding to media reports that current CEO Nyberg would step down before his contract expires, the Board issued a statement of confidence in the CEO in October.

TeliaSonera denies the corruption allegations, and states that it will comply fully with the corruption probe. In response to the human rights allegations, the company has promised a comprehensive self-review and has enlisted the Danish Institute for Human Rights to craft a self-assessment tool.

Additionally, TeliaSonera has set in motion a review of the requirements for lawful interception affecting mobile operators, requesting that Turkcell, the co-owner of the companies involved in the human rights abuses, do the same. The company also moved major decisions, such as the disruption of parts of or whole networks, from the local management to Group level.

Self-Assessment Isn’t Enough

CEO Lars Nyberg argues that TeliaSonera advances human rights, stating that “At TeliaSonera we believe that telecommunication is a force for good. [...] We believe that our presence in Central Asia contributes to the advancement of democracy and human rights in the long term.

Access supports Nyberg’s candid statements on his company’s human rights impact and his willingness to discuss all options, including terminating operations, to remedy abuses. However, if Nyberg wants TeliaSonera to fulfill his vision of a “force for good,” the company must move beyond self-assessment. The company lacks internal accountability, as allegations of corruption indicate. Self-assessment, without transparency or independent auditors, does not rebuild public trust in the company or restore its accountability.

To regain confidence in their commitments to the human rights practices enshrined in the Ruggie Framework, TeliaSonera must submit to an independent and ongoing assessment of its human rights impact. The Telco Action Plan, which Access created to help telecoms manage their human rights impacts and remedy abuses, calls on companies to be as transparent as possible with these assessments, and to meaningfully involve all stakeholders. Full membership in the Global Network Initiative would require the company to undergo these assessments, while also providing a channel for multi-stakeholder dialogue.

Immediate Action and Steps Going Forward

Entering markets is a time that requires particular attention. Currently, TeliaSonera is considering beginning operations Burma. Because of its political thaw, Burma represents an opportunity for multinational corporations and global civil society to nurture a strong democracy, in line with the rule of law.

The company states that “before making any decisions on entering the market a thorough human rights impact assessment and due diligence process would have to be completed.” To ensure that this process is effective and transparent, independent civil society and human rights groups would need to do their own assessments, which are not beholden to TeliaSonera’s final approval.

In conclusion, we note that TeliaSonera is part-owned by the citizens of Sweden and Finland. Sweden is currently ranked number 4 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception list, while Finland is tied with two other countries for first place. To maintain this impeccable reputation, TeliaSonera must quickly become transparent and allow independent monitoring of their actions, respect international law and human rights norms, and push back against authoritarian regimes.