PLO takes Veolia Transport and Alstom to court in France

20 November 2007

At the end of October 2007 European corporations Veolia Transport, and Alstom were taken to court by Association France Palestine Solidarité (AFPS), because of their involvement in the Israeli light rail or tramway project that is planned to link West Jerusalem with the ring of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Veolia has been under international pressure to withdraw from the project, but so far refuses. Now the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, has joined AFPS in the legal action against the two companies.

Tramway project violates international and French law

The tramway plays a vital role in the expansion of the Israeli colonization of East Jerusalem. The contract on the tramway between the Israeli government and CityPass, an Alstom led-consortium in which Veolia Transport also participates, is a violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949. This convention prohibits that Israel, as the occupying power, transfers part of its civil population to the occupied territory, and demolishes property, unless absolutely necessary for military operations. However, the tramway is a civil project.

The French Civil Code states in its articles 6, 1131 and 1133 that any agreement can be discharged of its powers when its aim is in contradiction with the public order or good morals. The contracts of Alstom and Veolia Transport are therefore also illegal under French law. The legal action undertaken by AFPS is based on this rule in French law and is seeking the cancellation of the contracts for the construction and running of the tramway in Palestine between Alstom, Veolia and the Israeli government. At the same time the legal action is aimed to prohibit the companies to execute the contract.

Veolia’s incapacity to learn

Amnesty International in France invited Veolia to discuss the tramway in December 2005. The company refused the invitation and informed Amnesty it had appointed an independent legal expert to study the file. Amnesty International France’s next step was to publish a statement on the illegality of the tramway on 1 March 2006.

The Palestinian Stop the Wall campaign found a surprising item on Veolia’s website at the end of September 2007. The Jerusalem tramway is mentioned under the heading “best practices,” as an example of “the challenge of doing business in politically and socially diverse contexts.” Veolia Transport claims on its website it has learned that it is “important to ensure that infrastructure construction and the operating contract are not marred by any discriminatory practices and has embarked on an evaluation process [of the Jerusalem tramway, AN/ML] that includes obtaining opinions from independent legal experts in order to maximize its understanding of the situation under relevant national and international law; discussions with governmental, non-governmental and private organizations in order to collect, compare and compile the assessments of a large number of stakeholders and receive the advice needed to make a responsible and fair evaluation of the situation; and seeking dialogue with the [Palestinian Authority] and local organizations representing the Palestinian community. Veolia Environnement’s Ethics Committee has been consulted and is taking part in monitoring the process. One of the Committee members went to Jerusalem during the year, as did our General Counsel and Sustainable Development Director.”

After reading about the “best” practice, the authors requested Veolia to send any information about the monitoring and evaluation of the tramway project. Veolia replied on 11 October 2007, “We are currently dealing with this issue in close collaboration with Amnesty International, with whom we may soon have a meeting.” This answer, almost two years after Veolia refused to meet Amnesty International France, can hardly be taken seriously.

Veolia and Alstom

The lawyers of Alstom and Veolia submitted this summer the defense documents in the legal case of AFPS, in which they dispute the competence of the court to judge the case. They also deny the admissibility of AFPS’s request for annulment of the contracts and for ending the construction activities. According to Alstom and Veolia’s lawyers, AFPS would not have any direct interest in the action. However, AFPS has included in its statutes that it can act in defense of the Palestinian people wherever its interests are denied or violated, including by submitting claims to French or international courts. At the end of October 2007, both parties presented their case on the admissibility of the claims in the court in Nanterre.

Veolia Transport and Alstom International also claim that they cannot be considered as legally accountable for any contract signed with the Israeli government for the light rail construction on the grounds that they have never been involved and they know nothing about it. It seems that Alstom and Veolia are trying to hide behind CityPass, the consortium in which both companies participate and the official signatory of the contract. The independent legal experts who advise the companies are clearly trying to find a way for the companies to evade their responsibility.

PLO holds Veolia and Alstom accountable

The two companies continue to state that also the Palestinians would benefit from the tramway. The PLO clearly has a different point of view, since it submitted on 15 October 2007 at the court in Nanterre, a few days before the AFPS hearing, a claim against Alstom and Veolia on the same grounds as AFPS. Hind Khoury, PLO delegate in France, has been officially mandated by the Palestinian president to represent the PLO in this action. The companies’ lawyers have also tried to argued that the PLO is not qualified to act as a complainant in the French court. The court conclusions on the formal admissibility of the procedure will be given on 11 January 2008.

In a press statement, the PLO delegation in Paris writes that the construction of the tramway and the underlying contract are hindering the Palestinians from exercising the right to govern themselves. Veolia writes on its website that it stands for sustainable development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, a basic need of present and future generations of Palestinians is self-determination and, obviously, this is hindered sustainably by Alstom and Veolia’s violation of international law.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate, Maria Lherm is member of the Association France Palestine Solidarité.

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