New UN database of companies complicit in Israel's occupation
Last month, in a landmark decision, the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to establish a database of all companies implicated in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, including the city of East Jerusalem.
Finally, after years of toothless UN condemnations of settlements – which are a flagrant violation of international law and a major obstacle to justice and peace in the region - there will be an official UN list that names and exposes businesses that have for decades enabled and profited from Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and other human rights abuses.
Establishment of such a UN database is long overdue. Already in the 1970s and 1980s, the UN Security Council called on all states to not recognize or provide assistance, economic or otherwise, to Israel’s illegal annexation and settlement policy. In 1982 the General Assembly called for sanctions against Israel for the same reason.
This decision by the Human Rights Council, nearly 50 years after Israel began its settlement enterprise, is certainly too little, too late. There are currently approximately 650,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, confining Palestinians to less than 40% of their land. However, it is still an important victory for Palestinians and the human rights community at large, who are struggling against US and European government policies that protect Israel from censure in the Security Council and undermine efforts to hold Israeli officials accountable.
Legally speaking, all UN-listed companies are to immediately stop their dealings with Israeli settlements and member states are to ensure that they do so. Additionally, investors and contractors, whether governments, local authorities or private entities, have repeatedly been urged by UN experts to avoid engagement with such companies until they end their illegal business dealings in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Companies that will be listed in this UN database are not only those based or operating inside Israeli settlements, but basically all companies doing business with the state of Israel or private Israeli actors operating in occupied Palestinian land, including East Jerusalem. This is because, in the framework of the UN, “Israeli settlements” is shorthand for the wide range of Israeli activities that contribute to the annexation and exploitation of Palestinian land and natural resources, demographic change through population transfer, and denial of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, all of which contravene international law. Companies will be listed if they provide equipment, supplies, services or other support to any of these Israeli activities.
Israel’s relentlessly expanding settlement enterprise has had an enormous detrimental impact on the lives of millions of Palestinians. We have had our land stolen, our homes and crops destroyed, and our towns and villages cut off from one another and the outside world, turned into easily-controlled Bantustans divided by Israeli settlements, military bases, walls, and Israeli-only roads. In effect, Israel has created an apartheid colonial regime where Palestinians under occupation have no rights while Israeli settlers living nearby enjoy all the right and privileges of Israeli citizenship. Action against the settlements is imperative for this reason.
The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) together with the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights will be tasked with compiling the database of companies involved with the occupation, with a first list to be presented in June 2016. Having abstained from the decision, European states and the EU are unlikely to provide active support to the work on the database. Thankfully, professional databases of a large number of companies implicated in Israel’s occupation and settlement activity have already been compiled by NGOs offering ethical investing screens, such as Who Profits and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
The U.S. opposed the list, though it is not currently on the Human Rights Council. During his two terms in office, President Obama has repeatedly made clear his belief that settlements are a major impediment to peace and the two-state solution, while at the same time continuing America’s virtually unconditional support for Israel and its settler-beholden extreme right-wing government. Now in his final year, President Obama should finally put his words into action and take concrete steps to stop settlement expansion.
The most important step towards halting and reversing Israel’s destructive and illegal settlement enterprise that the US has done so much to enable, would be for President Obama to suspend military aid to Israel rather than negotiating an increase as he is reportedly doing, at least until Israel abides by international law and longstanding US policy by ending illegal settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land. This would be in accordance with calls from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International for an arms embargo against Israel until it begins respecting international humanitarian law.
And if he really wants to send a message to Israel regarding how seriously the U.S. takes its shortsighted and dangerous settlement policy, he should certainly support other concrete measures, such as the UN’s efforts to stop companies from facilitating and profiting from Israel’s settlement enterprise and other violations of international law.
Ingrid Jaradat is a legal analyst and one of the founders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality