from Sunday Herald, 25 August 2013
The British communications giant, BT, is being quizzed by major investors over its alleged links to covert US drone strikes blamed for killing hundreds of people in Yemen and Somalia.
The Sunday Herald revealed last month that BT was the subject of a formal complaint to the UK government by a human rights group, Reprieve. The complaint concerns a $23 million contract to provide fibre-optic cables connecting Camp Lemonnier, a US drone base in the East African republic of Djibouti, to RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire, which serves as a major US communications base.
Lemonnier is the main centre for US drone operations outside Afghanistan. It sends Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles on “targeted killing” missions against suspected terrorist cells in Yemen and Somalia.
But Reprieve says that the attacks violate international law, and they are under investigation by the United Nations. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University in London, confirmed drone strikes in Yemen since 2002 have killed between 268 and 393 people, of whom 21-58 were civilians, and five were children.
BT’s initial response to the complaint was to say that it was “comfortable having the US government as a client”. But now it has come under pressure from its investors to justify its position.
The Lloyds Banking Group has launched a full investigation. Its investment arm, Scottish Widows, has requested an analysis from research agencies specialising in human rights, and contacted BT to understand its position.
“Lloyds Banking Group takes its responsibilities very seriously,” Anita Frew, who chairs the company’s responsible business steering group, told Reprieve. “We will monitor developments on this issue closely.”
The global investment company, BlackRock, said that it had discussed the issue with BT. “These situations are complex and can take time to address,” wrote the company’s Michelle Edkins. “Shareholders can be most effective through private dialogue with companies.”
David Nish, chief executive of Standard Life in Edinburgh, promised to “consider this matter as part of our engagement process, which evaluate the environmental and social policies and practices of companies in which we are an investor.”
Reprieve’s lawyer, Catherine GIlfedder, called on BT to “come clean” about its links to US drone attacks. “BT’s response to date has been to refuse to address how the US government uses the company’s systems,” she said.
“This is in spite of its past acknowledgment that there are serious human rights risks associated with the ways its products are used by customers. If the company is facilitating the US’s destructive drone war, then its investors and customers deserve to know.”
Investors were worried by the issue and considering whether to continue their associations with BT, Gilfedder claimed. “They recognise the serious reputational risk they face if firms fail to comply with international human rights standards.”
She added: “Hundreds of civilians have died as a result of covert drone strikes, the latest step in the misguided ‘War on Terror’. BT has a responsibility to make sure its equipment is not used in support of this.”
BT disclosed that it had responded in detail to Reprieve’s complaint. The company wasn’t able to release a copy of its response, but it insisted that it fully justified BT’s position and delivered a “robust” reply to the accusations.
A BT spokesman confirmed that the company had spoken to investors contacted by Reprieve. “BT has no knowledge of US drone strikes and has no involvement in any such activity,” he said.
"BT can categorically state that the communication system mentioned by Reprieve is a general purpose fibre-optic system. It has not been specifically designed or adapted by BT for military purposes, including drone strikes. BT takes its human rights obligations very seriously.”
This story was followed up by The Independent.