Collective action, not only on the part of companies but also non-authoritarian states, investors and civil society, is absolutely vital in order to garner greater respect for human rights among businesses trading in authoritarian contexts such as Iran, says Professor Surya Deva of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights in webinar on ICT companies and human rights.

With the potential new business rush to Iran as a result of the anticipated renewal of the Nuclear Deal, there is concern about whether respect for human rights will be upheld. Thus, on June 10th, 2021, Justice for Iran, along with SOMO and FIDH, hosted a webinar entitled ‘Respecting human rights in the next business rush to Iran: Have (ICT) companies learned from past mistakes doing business with repressive regimes?’, attended by international and civil society experts to discuss how best to promote business respect for human rights in authoritarian contexts such as Iran.

“Once a new agreement is reached, we have all reasons to believe that a new rush of international companies to Iran may follow. The problem is that some multinational companies may engage in business with Iranian entities despite a very high risk by doing so of causing or contributing to grave violations of human rights” said Yasmine Laveille, Justice for Iran’s Operational Manager and moderator of the webinar. “With prospects for the resurrection of the deal, many companies are likely to make the same mistakes,” she added, before introducing the panel who talked about different aspects of trade with repressive regimes.

Professor Surya Deva, Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, spoke of difficulties and flaws in the international framework of business and human rights. “Merely respecting human rights will not be enough. It is becoming increasingly clear that you cannot respect human rights as a company unless you defend and promote human rights.” said Professor Deva.

The main focus of the webinar was FIDH, SOMO and Justice for Iran’s joint discussion paper, Under a watchful eye: Due diligence expectations of telecom companies doing business with repressive regimes – the case of Italtel and Iran.

Mohammad Nayyeri, Justice for Iran’s Co-Director dedicated the first part of his talk to the agreement between Itatel, an Italian telecommunications company, and the state-run Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) in 2016. By partnering with TCI, a company owned and controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he explained, Italtel risked becoming involved with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s human rights abuses. This resulted in Justice for Iran, FIDH and REDRESS filing before the Italian National Contact Point (NCP) in 2017 the first-ever OECD case related to Iran.

Despite the mishandling of the case by Italian authorities, Nayyeri stressed, the complaint achieved some of the objectives that might be expected of such an intervention by civil society and was impactful in terms of changing the behavior of Italtel and perhaps other companies. Following the complaint, he said, “Italtel decided that they had to conduct a reassessment of the risks” and withdrew some of the items it had previously offered to provide to Iran. “This was an important outcome with regard to the potential abuse of Italtel’s technology by TCI.”

Nayyeri went on to describe the obstacles faced by human rights organisations in promoting accountability among businesses. “Tech companies have to recognise that ICT is a high-risk sector, especially when they consider doing business in any authoritarian and repressive context … this would require heightened due diligence from tech companies,” he emphasised.

Referring to the Itatel case and criticizing the handling of the case by the Italian NCP, Joseph Wilde-Ramsing, Senior Researcher at SOMO and the Coordinator of OECD Watch, pointed to the duties of ICT companies in assessing the human rights situation and carrying out due diligence while engaging with the stakeholders prior to entering agreements as well as throughout their business relationships.

Wilde-Ramsing also highlighted the need for transparency as a vital facet of trade relationships between ICT companies and repressive regimes. “What’s brought out by this case is the importance of transparency … It’s often difficult for right-holders and civil society organisations to prove a particular business relationship exists as these governments and companies will never make those contracts public if they choose.”

Gaelle Despulchre, the representative of FIDH to the European Union, raised similar concerns about the NCP’s confusion of dual use export regulations with human rights due diligence and its failure to address the responsibility of the company. She then spoke of the steps taken by the EU regarding human rights due diligence and explained that the impact of ICT and surveillance equipment and services on human rights has been recognized by the EU, and that such impacts should be addressed in business relationships. “Under the new EU regulation, both EU member states and companies have an obligation regarding human rights due diligence” she said, and “are required to conduct an assessment of the risks posed by the adverse impact of business agreements on human rights.”

Political momentum and consensus to establish binding corporate human rights due diligence norms have been growing. National legislation on mandatory due diligence is already in place or under discussion in a number of European countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands. In March 2021, the European Parliament also voted by a strong majority in favour of a report which called the European Commission to establish a mandatory human rights due diligence bill.

Read the discussion paper here.