Europe’s Largest Pension Funds Heavily Invested in Illegal Israeli Settlements
Europe’s five largest pension funds have €7.5 billion invested in companies with business activities in and around illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. This is at odds with United Nations guidelines, clear warnings from 18 European countries, and undermines the two-state solution, experts warn.
European investors have billions of euro invested in companies with activities in and around illegal Israeli settlements, according to a new investigation from Danwatch that screened the investment portfolios of Europe’s top five pension fund managers.
Statens pensjonsfond utland (Oljefondet) (NO), Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP (NE), Pensioenfonds Zorg en Welzijn (NE), Arbejdsmarkedets Tillægspension (DK), and Alecta Pensionsförsäkring (SE) have a total of €7.5 billion invested in 36 Israeli and international publicly-traded companies, most of which have long been under public scrutiny because of their activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Hugh Lovatt, expert on Israel and Palestine at the respected think-tank European Council on Foreign Relations, explains the problem with settlements:
“Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and have led to the dispossession of Palestinians and the fragmentation of Palestinian land. They infringe on Palestinian rights and exploit Palestinian natural resources.”
Business activities in and around settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are not necessarily against the law, but according to the United Nations, investors are obliged to carry out enhanced due diligence and to demonstrate that their activities do not contribute to negative effects on human rights.
Warning from European governments
In addition, 18 European countries warn their citizens and businesses in no uncertain terms against undertaking financial and economic activities that could support illegal Israeli settlements.
“Financial transactions, investments, purchases, tenders, and other economic activities (including services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements are associated with legal and economic risks due to the fact that, according to international law, the Israeli settlements are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a lawful part of Israel’s territory,” wrote the Danish Foreign Ministry in a 2014 statement similar to statements published by other countries.
“One should also be aware of possible violations of international humanitarian law and human rights,” the statement warns and refers to OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2011) and United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights (2011).
Undermining the two-state solution
In addition to the “increased risk of adverse human rights impacts”, as the UN puts it, European investors are also actively undermining the official policy of the EU regarding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"When European investors finance, fund or facilitate the settlement enterprise and illegal actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, they are contributing to the undermining of the two-state solution and therefore the undermining of the EU’s own foreign policy objectives,” [said] Policy fellow Hugh Lovatt at the European Council for Foreign Relations states to Danwatch.
“And these investments are illegal under international law – or at least very problematic – and exposes European investors to reputational, financial and legal risks,” says Lovatt.
Investments in companies with business activities in and around settlements tie European investors to potential violations of international humanitarian law and Palestinians’ human rights.
Lars Erslev Andersen, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), agrees that it is problematic when companies have activities in settlements.
“In my opinion, businesses that have branches or factories in the occupied Palestinian territories help to maintain the occupation and facilitate Israel’s continued construction of settlements, infrastructure and security apparatus in the West Bank,” Andersen tells Danwatch.
"This is problematic, because it undermines the two-state solution, which is gradually becoming an illusion for a great number of people," [said] Lars Erslev Andersen, senior researcher at DIIS.
Norwegian fund biggest investor
The largest single investor by far is Statens Pensjonsfond Utland, the Government Pension Fund of Norway, with €5.2 billion out of the total €7.5 billion invested in all 36 companies on Danwatch’s list.
This includes €135 million in Caterpillar, which supplies bulldozers for the demolition of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories; €286 million in HeidelbergCement, which has been blacklisted by several other European investors due to exploitation of Palestinian natural resources; and €1.5 billion in Siemens, which has installed traffic systems on Israeli roads in the West Bank and placed bids on projects on occupied territory with Israel Railways.
The Norwegian Government Pension Fund also has €233 million in five Israeli banks financing settlement construction and operating in the West Bank in various ways: Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel Ltd, Israel Discount Bank Ltd and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank Ltd.
These same banks are blacklisted by Europe’s third largest pension fund Pensioenfonds Zorg en Welzijn (PFZW) (NE) which in 2014 ended several years of dialogue.
“Given the day-to-day reality and domestic legal framework they operate in, the banks have limited to no possibilities to end their involvement in the financing of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories,” wrote PFZW (formerly PGGM) about the decision to divest from Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Mizrahi Tefahot because they finance settlements and operate branches on occupied territory.
Danwatch asked The Norwegian Government Pension Fund specific questions about each of their investments in the 36 specific companies, but received no specific reply. Instead the fund answers in general terms about how they expect companies they invest in to strive to observe “the G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the UN Global Compact.”
“Our expectations are especially relevant for companies with direct operations, supply chains or other business relationships in high-risk sectors, high-risk geographical areas, or otherwise high-risk operational environments,” they explain.
The Norwegian oil fund’s decisions about excluding specific companies is regulated by an independent council appointed by the Norwegian Ministry of Finance.
New findings will be considered
Of the five largest European pension funds, Denmark’s ATP is by far the smallest investor in companies on Danwatch’s list, with about €1 million in total in Siemens and The Priceline Group Inc, the owner of booking.com, which facilitates hotels in a number of settlements. However, ATP’s publicly available stock portfolio does not include index futures, which amounts to almost 95% of ATP’s entire foreign holdings.
On the two specific investments, ATP explains that Danwatch’s findings includes new information not covered by their external screening partner, and that they will have to consider this before they can answer specific questions.
Sweden’s largest pension fund, and Europe’s fifth-largest, Alecta Pensionsförsäkring, only has investments in one company on Danwatch’s list: Volvo Group. The Swedish industrial conglomerate partly owns Merkavim, which provides armoured busses for Egged bus lines in the West Bank, where Volvo busses are also used for transport. Two Volvo-certified garages operate in the illegal industrial zones of Mishor Adumim and Atarot in the occupied West Bank. Furthermore, Volvo excavators are used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian houses on occupied land, as documented in February, April and October 2016 in the Palestinian villages of Jinba, Halaweh, Um Al Kher and in the Jordan Valley. Danwatch presented these findings to Volvo Group, but received no reply.
On the subject of house demolitions, Volvo Group stated in 2011 that “Volvo neither can nor wants to take a position in international conflicts […] We regret if they are used for destructive purposes, but it does not stop us from believing that our excavators and vehicles largely play a part in making the world a little better.”
Alecta Pensionsförsäkring explains to Danwatch that their due diligence is outsourced to external partner GES, and that GES confirm their knowledge about the issue and have concluded that Volvo Group’s activities is not a breach against international conventions.
“Volvo has limited possibilities to influence how their products are used and we believe that Volvo cannot be directly linked to human rights violations,” Swedish investor Alecta therefore tells Danwatch.
“Alecta has an active and ongoing dialogue with Volvo as well as with our external partner GES and has so far not received any indication pointing towards an exclusion. If necessary we will as a first priority engage further in our dialogue with Volvo to make them comply with international law, rather than exclude them as an investment,” Alecta says.
Danwatch also contacted the two Dutch pension funds Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP and Pensioenfonds Zorg en Welzijn (PFZW), but received no reply.