As the Telenor Group pushes for the sale of its Burmese subsidiary to a consortium linked to the army, Burma and Norway are increasingly concerned that the junta could have access to the personal data of the 18 million customers. network Burmese.
In an interview with Myanmar Now, Norwegian judge Hanne Sophie Greve warns that Telenor and Norwegian authorities could be held responsible for complicity in crimes against humanity, in the worst case scenario.
She said Telenor should either sell to a responsible buyer, who is not linked to the military in Myanmar, or shut down its network if a responsible buyer cannot be found.
Since the coup, Telenor has responded to more than 200 data requests from the military junta, with each request consisting of multiple phone numbers.
Telenor told Myanmar Now: “Violating or failing to comply with guidelines issued under the existing legal framework would have serious and totally unacceptable consequences for our employees.”
But Greve maintains that it is the responsibility of the company’s leaders and owners, including the Norwegian government, not to contribute in any way to possible crimes against humanity in Myanmar.
Greve has worked extensively on international law. Previously, she was, among other things, an expert at the United Nations Commission of Experts on the former Yugoslavia (the War Crimes Commission), a judge at the European Court of Human Rights and also worked with Myanmar refugees in Thailand at the UN. High Commissioner for Refugees.
What are your concerns regarding Telenor Group’s sale of its Myanmar unit?
My main concern, of course, is the roughly 18 million customers and their data. I think there is reason to fear that the behavior of the junta in Myanmar today amounts to crimes against humanity. For this reason, I believe that anyone helping the Myanmar military gain access to data relating to perhaps 18 million Telenor customers may in fact be aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
What do you think Telenor should do differently?
In my opinion, the first thing to do in these circumstances is to ensure that no one inside Myanmar has access to information about Telenor’s customers in Myanmar. Telenor would thus ensure that no one can be pressured, no one can be asked to divulge such information. This is, in my opinion, the very first step.
The second step should be to have the sale canceled, well, I want it canceled, but at least postponed, so that it can be examined very carefully, if it could be aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
I think it would be desirable for Telenor to ask the Attorney General of Norway to give an opinion on the possible consequences of the sale. Telenor should wait for this advice. I can’t imagine the answer will be that disclosing the information of 18 million customers can’t be a help and abet, if the behavior of the military in Myanmar already, or tomorrow, amounts to crimes against the humanity. So, I hope there will be no sale in the end. Not this week, not by February 15, and not in the future either. But at least let’s adjourn it. But, immediately, freeze all, absolutely all information on all clients in Myanmar.
The line from the Norwegian government seems to be that, although Telenor is a majority state-owned company, they do not interfere in the affairs of the company and it is entirely up to the board. Do you think it’s acceptable for the Norwegian government to take a hands-off approach when selling, as you put it, could amount to complicity?
In my opinion, the government cannot wash its hands of this file. That is to say, the problem is far too serious. I certainly agree that in day-to-day business, small business, ordinary sales, it is not for the government to intervene. Then it’s up to the board of directors to decide. But, when it comes to potential crimes against humanity, that is no longer the case, in my opinion. Not at all. This is why, for the past few days, pressure has been mounting on the government, and on the minister who takes care of business affairs, to take action on the file. I know that the Norwegian government, in principle and in general, is very, very concerned about the situation in Myanmar. This is the government’s approach. This cannot be combined with staying away when it comes to a potential sale to people who may share information with the junta in Myanmar.
If the sale takes place and is found to aid and abet crimes against humanity, who could be held responsible?
Well, first of all, God forbids them to sell. But if this very, very unfortunate situation were to arise—Norway is bound by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which means that crimes against humanity, even though Myanmar is not a party to that Statute , could give rise to a complaint against at least Telenor, or perhaps even, in the worst case, against the Norwegian authorities for not having stopped the sale.
So, in your view, could the Norwegian authorities who have authority over the majority state stakes in Telenor Myanmar also be complicit in crimes against humanity if they continue to fail to intervene and the sale takes place?
At worst, yes. The first question is whether crimes against humanity are being committed by the junta in Myanmar today or in the near future. Assuming that’s the case, which unfortunately I think it might be, that could be the end result. They have every chance of stopping the sale. They have been warned. They are fully aware of the sensitivity of telecommunications data. Today I am a judge in Norway. The country has very strict rules. If the police or the prosecutor want information about my phone calls, they can get it in connection with criminal cases, if, and only if, a court agrees. Thus, Telenor is fully aware of the sensitivity of all the information they have. They know perfectly well that it is extremely sensitive. The company cannot waive its ownership rights, so to speak, to this information and not waive its obligation to protect the information. They may be able to sell to anyone, but without the information. In my opinion, financial matters can no longer be invoked at this stage.
Under international criminal law, is there a risk that the current board members of the Telenor Group will be complicit in crimes against humanity if they proceed with the sale?
Yes absolutely. Absoutely. The senior administration and the board of directors bear the primary responsibility in this case. It is up to the board to prevent Telenor from aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
According to Myanmar Now sources, army-linked company Shwe Byain Phyu will own the majority of Telenor Myanmar after it was sold to M1 Group. Telenor continues to say they will not comment on market speculation and they refused to tell Myanmar Now the name of the legal entity they intend to sell to, and the jurisdiction. How do you view these circumstances of the sale?
If I have a bomb in my hand, I don’t give it to you saying, “I don’t care what happens.” They cannot, under the circumstances, see this as something beyond their control. That is, if the buyer is a very responsible and decent company that is known to be behaving very well, and if that particular company changed completely in five years and behaving very badly, it wouldn’t be the responsibility of Telenor. But, if Telenor is selling to someone who has a reputation for not being responsible, or who has ties to the current military junta, that’s another question. And that is the case as it is. It is up to Telenor to produce proof that the buyer is acceptable, i.e. there can be no suspicion that the buyer will share the personal data of the 18 million Burmese customers of the network with the army.
Telenor said the reason for the sale is that they would not be consistent with their values if they remained in Myanmar. So they have to go. They also claimed that if they continued to operate in Myanmar, they would have to activate lawful interception, which could breach EU sanctions. They therefore imply that leaving Myanmar, by selling out to the M1 group, is the best case scenario for human rights. How would you answer that?
This is, in my opinion, a false assertion. The best option, if they can’t find a decent buyer, is to close completely. Not to be sold at all. Close it. That’s all. Telenor cannot say that human rights only matter as long as the company operates inside Myanmar. Human rights are equally important in the context of a sale. I debated it with Telenor on TV in Norway, and they say exactly what you said, we have to leave because of human rights and so on. I say I really appreciate you wanting to leave under the circumstances. But you must ensure that human rights are not violated by the way you leave. This is an absolute obligation under the guidelines on business and human rights developed by the UN and the OECD. Companies have an obligation to protect their customers throughout. Selling is one of them. They have to ensure human rights in the selling process and they have to make sure that the buyer is not someone who will give information to the junta in Myanmar.
Since the military coup on February 1 last year, Telenor has fulfilled at least 200 directives from the military junta to hand over customers’ personal data, with each directive exposing multiple phone numbers. Telenor’s response to this is that if they had refused these requests it would put their staff at risk, so they had no choice. How would you answer that?
The responsibility in cases like this rests with the management. Given the situation inside Myanmar, the decision not to transmit information must be taken from outside. It must be ensured that no one working for Telenor in Myanmar will be able to divulge information given the circumstances. It is a management responsibility.
Today, many people in Myanmar are afraid of what will happen if the proposed sale of Telenor goes through. As a judge and also as a Norwegian citizen, what would be your message for them?
We will do everything we can to make sure there is no harm. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll spare no effort to try to see to it. And I know that many, many people in Norway are deeply worried right now.