Access welcomes the news that Swedish telco TeliaSonera is taking further steps to remedy its involvement in corrupt business deals in Uzbekistan, most recently by Monday’s ousting of four senior executives.
Reuters reports that CFO Per-Arne Blomquist is among the departing employees. According to the press release put out by the company, the recent departures stem directly from an ongoing review by the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright LLP into TeliaSonera’s Eurasia dealings. In 2007, the company gave roughly USD$350M to a shell corporation controlled by the Uzbek dictator’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and her associates, in order to secure 3G operating licenses for the Uzbek market. Findings from the law firm’s review convinced the CEO and Board that “the processes for conducting some transactions have not been in line with sound business practices,” and did not “live up to the high standards of business ethics and transparency that TeliaSonera wants to stand for.”
“The rights of Uzbek users and citizens were violated because an international telco failed to behave responsibly and be a good corporate citizen,” said Access Policy Counsel Peter Micek. “TeliaSonera could have avoided this costly, embarrassing episode by taking its own human rights and ethics commitments to heart from the start. A culture of human rights compliance is needed in navigating the types of questions TeliaSonera and other telcos confront, whether it is requests for bribes or demands to shut down networks or surveil users for political purposes.”
A previous review by a different law firm, Mannheimer Swartling, found the company broke no laws but failed to do proper due diligence. That report led to the departure of CEO Lars Nyberg and a shakeup in the Board earlier this year. As Access wrote at the time, TeliaSonera’s saga is not an anomaly in this era of deregulation and international expansion of telcos. Rather, it should serve a warning that human rights commitments do not stop at the border of a telco’s home country, and have real consequences when not upheld.
A major TeliaSonera shareholder told Reuters that although personnel changes are a positive step, the company must change the way it conducts business. At Access, we agree: Adherence to the ten steps to rights-respecting telco operations in the Access Telco Action Plan will help the telco better prevent and mitigate human rights violations. Due diligence, through ongoing impact assessments, can prevent human rights abuses as well as risks to corporate stability and growth.
Once abuses do occur, telcos must fulfill the Third Pillar of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and provide those affected with access to remedy — in this context the ability to redress, counteract, and make good any human rights harms that have occurred, and it is usually provided through the courts or a non-judicial mechanism. The Access Telco Remedy Plan provides a host of options for non-judicial remedy and includes a case study on TeliaSonera. Transparency, including a public release of law firm’s ongoing review and a public benchmarking of policy changes in Uzbekistan, can be a first step toward redressing harms and restoring user trust.