The global telecom company Orange participates in systematic violations of Palestinian rights, according to an investigation published this week by a coalition of French and Palestinian human rights and labor organizations.
Among the world’s biggest telecom companies, Paris-based Orange is partly owned by the French government. It operates in dozens of countries and has almost 35 million customers in Egypt and four million in Jordan.
In Israel, Orange operates through a franchise agreement with an Israeli company called Partner Communications Ltd.
The report calls on Orange to cut its ties to Partner and on the French government and EU to act to enforce international law.
The report notes that Orange profits from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as Partner operates hundreds of communications towers and other infrastructure, much of it on privately owned land confiscated from Palestinians. There are also dozens of Orange-branded stores in settlements.
Complicity in Gaza massacre
It cites The Electronic Intifada’s recent investigation on how Orange supported the Israeli military during last summer’s attack on Gaza that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead.
The report was issued by FIDH - International Federation for Human Rights, with its member organizations Al-Haq, Ligue des droits de l’Homme, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Association France Palestine Solidarité, Union Syndicale Solidaires and the French trades union federation Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT).
The meticulously researched 53-page document was published this week in French. An English version is said to be forthcoming.
The report is part of the “Made in Illegality” initiative that calls upon European governments to end economic relations with Israeli settlements.
Orange uses expropriated Palestinian land in order to generate profits. At the same time, Israeli mobile companies including Orange-Partner pay rent to Israeli settlers to place towers on “their” land.
By operating in settlements that are illegal under international law, the report states, “Partner contributes to their economic viability and maintenance, and thus contributes to a situation considered illegal by the international community with respect to international law, entailing violations of international humanitarian law with respect to human rights.”
At the same time, Orange-Partner enjoys an unfair advantage over Palestinian mobile companies which operate under severe Israeli-imposed restrictions.
Orange, the report states, maintains a close and substantive contractual business relationship with Partner and therefore “assumes the risk of staining its image by association with … a company that could make it guilty of violations of human rights.”
The Orange-Partner deal was first signed in 1998 and renewed in 2011 and 2015. It allows Partner to use Orange’s brand in exchange for royalties and the two companies share marketing strategies. Orange also supplies equipment to Partner.
The report concludes that under emerging international norms about the responsibilities of multinational companies, this relationship obliges Orange to do due diligence with respect to potential human rights violations by its business partner.
Feeling the heat
Orange has resisted repeated requests from French civil society, including the authors of the report, to end its deal with Partner.
In the past, the report notes, the company has claimed that international law does not apply to individual persons – including corporations – but only to states.
But now there are signs that Orange is starting to recognize it can no longer ignore the potential costs of complicity in Israeli occupation and human rights crimes.
In an October 2014 email, Orange for the first time revealed that it had addressed demands to Partner relating to respect for human rights. But the authors of the report deemed this “insufficient.”
In another sign that the company is scrambling to respond to a burgeoning public relations crisis, Orange invited the organizations that authored the report to meet.
The invitation was received on 28 April, just days before the report’s publication, but more than two months after the authors last requested such a meeting.
Orange managers may well be aware of the cautionary example of Veolia.
French state complicity
The French government is a 25.05 percent shareholder in Orange, which means that the French government is in effect condoning and profiting from the occupation and settlements – a blatant contradiction of France’s long-held view that Israeli settlements violate international law.
In 2013, for instance, French President François Hollande called for a “total and definitive” halt to Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank.
France, which ostensibly supports the creation of a Palestinian state, has like other EU governments specifically warned its corporations about the legal and reputational risks associated with doing business in Israeli settlements.
The report authors say France has a legal obligation to use its influence and authority as a government and shareholder to end Orange’s abuses.
Yet the Hollande administration has failed to respond to repeated approaches from French civil society.
The report concludes with strong recommendations to the EU, France and to Orange urging them to take specific and urgent actions to end the company’s complicity in Israeli colonization.
Given the intransigence by the corporation and the Hollande administration exposed in the report, it is likely that much more public pressure will be needed to bring them to account.
Still, there are encouraging signs that Orange is starting to feel the heat.