Human rights activists slammed the move of the United Kingdom to license the sale of £75 million of telecoms and hacking equipment to countries like the Philippines with questionable human rights record citing that authoritarian governments can use the technology in their crackdown against political dissidents.
According to an analysis of export licenses for telecommunications interception equipment since 2015 when the figures were first separately collated, the United Kingdom has eventually licensed the export of UK-made spyware and surveillance technology.
The specialized technology was sold to several countries with questionable and dubious human rights records including the Philippines, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These countries have been tagged by different human rights watchdogs to have problematic governmental control and authoritarian regimes and human rights advocates have raised the concerns that technology enables these dictatorial governments to continue abuse against the opposition.
Reports revealed that the sold technology might have included international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, which are used to eavesdrop and a wiretap on telephone conversations and for surveillance purposes.
“It is not just conventional weapons that can be used for oppression and abuse, it is also monitoring and surveillance equipment,” said Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade, which produced the analysis. “It is totally reckless and irresponsible to sell this kind of equipment to regimes that can use it against activists and campaigners.”
Smith, who has been a vocal human rights advocate in the UK, has questioned what checks and balances exist in the sale of these sensitive technologies and to ensure that they don’t facilitate in committing of human rights abuses.
“These sales are symptomatic of a policy that has government consistently prioritizing arms exports over human rights. Once this equipment has left UK shores it is impossible to adequately regulate how it is used and who it is used against,” Smith said.
The human rights group Global Justice Now, through the Leigh Day law firm that represents them, wrote a letter to the Department of International Trade seeking clarification on how the said technology and surveillance equipment are being used by the countries that they sold it to, citing freedom of information. However, all attempts to solicit clearing up have yielded little to none results.
“Frankly, as far as the Department for International Trade is concerned, freedom of information has completely broken down,” said Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now.
“They are the worst performing department of the worst performing government we’ve ever had in respecting transparency and freedom of information. This makes it impossible for us to hold them to account for their actions and activities.”
PROBLEMATIC HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD OF THE PHILIPPINES
According to the organization, UK’s sale of the equipment to the Philippines followed Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman President of the country, publicly admitted to wiretap at least two high ranking officials in the wake of his controversial War on Drugs campaign. Worse, one of these politicians was killed along with more than 14,000 other suspected drug pushers.
“Such misuse of surveillance equipment concerns in the context of the wider human rights violations perpetrated by Duterte’s regime, which have seen state-sponsored extrajudicial killings by the ‘Davao death squads’, the return of capital punishment, threats, intimidation and imprisonment of critics, journalists and anyone gathering evidence of human rights abuses, and the revelation of a government ‘hit list’ including NGOs and UN figures.”
The Philippines have been facing a series of international scrutiny including an inquiry from the International Criminal Court, which the country has conveniently opted out effective last Sunday, over the alleged human rights abuses committed by the Duterte regime.
According to local sources, some vocal opposition to the President have been persecuted for speaking against the strongman, who won the 2016 Presidential Elections after he promised that “Change is coming.” One of the critics that is currently facing charges and remains under the custody of the authorities is Senator Leila De Lima, former chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, who since the beginning of the Duterte presidency has been very vocal of her criticisms to the drug war policy and the systematic killing of the poor people under the guise of a legitimate police operation. Others include Maria Ressa, the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Rappler, an online news agency that is known to be critical against the president, Australian nun Patricia Fox, who was seen participating in political exercises in the country and is now deported, and Senator Antonio Trillanes, one of the leaders of the Oakwood Mutiny that was orchestrated to oust the former president Gloria M. Arroyo.
“The system is clearly broken if some of the licenses are being approved to countries that we know are abusing human rights,” Daerden said.