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UN identifies tech companies working in Occupied Palestinian Territories

United Nations Human Rights Office report names a number of technology companies that could be involved in violating human rights

The United Nations (UN) has identified multinational telecommunications company Motorola Solutions as supplying surveillance equipment to illegal Israeli settlements and checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Motorola is just one of 112 business entities identified by the UN in a database of enterprises that are claimed to have “directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of the settlements” in the territories.

Other tech companies named include travel e-commerce companies Airbnb, Booking.com, TripAdvisor and Opodo, as well as records management firm EPR Systems and mobile network operator Pelephone Communications.

Motorola is the only company on the list, alongside its subsidiary Motorola Solutions Israel, that is said to be explicitly supplying surveillance equipment. Computer Weekly contacted the firm for comment on this story, but had not received a reply by the time of publication.

“I am conscious that this issue has been, and will continue to be, highly contentious,” said Michelle Bachelet, high commissioner for human rights at the UN.

“However, after an extensive and meticulous review process, we are satisfied that this fact-based report reflects the serious consideration that has been given to this unprecedented and highly complex mandate, and that it responds appropriately to the Human Rights Council’s request.”

The database was mandated by a March 2016 resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council, which set out 10 business activities within Israeli settlements that raised particular human rights violation concerns.

These include the supply of materials and equipment for the construction and expansion of settlements, the supply of surveillance and identification equipment to monitor activity in the settlements, and the use of natural resources, particularly water and land, for business purposes. 

The resolution said: “The state of Israel has had full control of the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967 and continues to promote and sustain them through infrastructure and security measures.

“The mission notes that, despite all pertinent United Nations resolutions declaring that the existence of the settlements is illegal and calling for their cessation, the planning and growth of the settlements continues.”

It added: “It is with the full knowledge of the current situation and the related liability risks that business enterprises unfold their activities in the settlements and contribute to their maintenance, development and consolidation.”

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On 6 March 2020, UK Labour MP Kate Osamor asked James Cleverly, secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, whether the department planned to respond to the UN database.

Cleverly said: “The UK, along with a number of other European countries, opposed the creation of the UN Human Rights Office’s database. We neither encourage nor offer support to individuals or companies who operate in settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

But according to quarterly export control licensing data, published by the Export Control Joint Unit and the Department for International Trade, the UK exported telecommunications interception equipment to at least 20 countries in 2018, including Israel.

On 26 June 2019, during the Human Rights Council’s 41st session, the UN’s mandated expert on freedom of expression, David Kaye, described the international situation as a “surveillance free-for-all in which states and industry are essentially collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals worldwide”.

Before the session, Kaye released a report calling for an immediate moratorium on the use, transfer and sale of surveillance tools between states, governments and the private sector.

UN member states ended up sidestepping this call for a moratorium, instead opting to commission a report looking at the technology’s impact, which will be discussed in late 2020.

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