Volvo misses the mark on responsibility for the protection of human rights

In December I wrote about the use of Volvo and Hyundai equipment in the demolition of Palestinian homes in Beit Hanina, occupied East Jerusalem. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in London invited Hyundai and the Volvo Group to respond to my blog. While Hyundai kept silent, Volvo wrote, “We understand your reaction to these pictures but Volvo neither can nor wants to take a position in international conflicts. We regard these as issues for elected politicians and diplomats to handle. As a result of this, we do not adopt a position in the Middle East conflict.”

Volvo Group misses the mark when it argues that protection of the human rights of the Palestinian people is a matter for politicians, because multinational enterprises have their own responsibility to protect human rights. For example, the OECD updated its Guidelines last year to include recommendations aimed at ensuring that firms respect human rights in every country in which they operate. These Guidelines are recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries. Sweden is a member of the OECD. In addition, the UN Human Rights Council has endorsed a new set of global guiding principles for business designed to ensure that companies do not violate human rights in the course of their transactions and that they provide redress when infringements occur.

Demolition of Palestinian homes violates human rights

In the report “No Home, No Homeland”, Advocates Emily Schaeffer and Michael Sfard present an analysis of Israel’s home demolition policy in East Jerusalem under international law. They note that the right to adequate housing is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (Art. 25(1); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 (Art. 11); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (Art. 17); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1969 (Art. 5(e)(iii)); the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1990 (Arts. 16, 27); and General Comments 4 (1991) and 7 (1997) of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Israel is therefore obligated to protect the homes of the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Instead, Israel has “stepped up unlawful demolitions in the West Bank including East Jerusalem over the past year, displacing a record number of Palestinian families from their homes”, according to an international coalition of 20 leading aid agencies and human rights groups. In a statement they reveal that last year “more than 500 Palestinian homes, wells, rainwater harvesting cisterns, and other essential structures have been destroyed in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, displacing more than 1,000 Palestinians. This is more than double the number of people displaced over the same period in 2010, and the highest figure since at least 2005. More than half of those displaced have been children for whom the loss of their home is particularly devastating. Up to 2,300 Bedouin living in the Jerusalem periphery could be forcibly and unlawfully relocated if Israeli authorities follow through with their reported plans in 2012, which would destroy their livelihoods and threaten their traditional way of life. Rural communities in the Jordan Valley are also facing the prospect of further demolitions as settlements continue to expand.”

Demolitions with Volvo and Caterpillar equipment continue

Meanwhile, the demolitions of Palestinian homes and livelihood continue. In the Abu Tor neighborhood in Silwan - occupied East Jerusalem - a Volvo machine executed the demolition of a large animal shelter on 20 December 2011. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reports that the demolition affected three people. The destructive action is documented on video.

In Jericho - occupied West Bank - four Palestinian homes were demolished by Israeli forces on 5 January 2012. “A huge number of Israeli forces surrounded the neighborhood at 10 a.m., then cordoned off an area and barred entry to residents. Home owners and journalists were also prevented from entering, with officers citing security reasons. The four demolitions were carried out with no prior warning given to the residents. One owner, Saleem Siyam, and his family, had 5 minutes to remove their furniture and belongings from their home, while the other three families were given no opportunity,” reports Wadi Hilweh Information Center-Silwan. The center documented the demolition executed by Volvo and Caterpillar equipment.


Volvo Group evades corporate responsibility

“We do not modify our products for special purposes like demolishing. Our standard products are sold new and used all over the world without any restrictions and it is not possible to say whether the equipment seen on the pictures were originally sold in Israel, since used equipment is mainly sold at auctions and subsequently transported to the country where it is to be used. Neither Volvo nor any of its competitors can influence or control this type of trade with used products”, wrote Volvo Group in its response to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Volvo Group’s inertia towards the protection of human righs of the Palestinian people is unacceptable. Instead of using the “uncontrollable” trade in second-hand equipment as an excuse, Volvo should focus on what can be done within its areas of influence. For example, the company can track the initial sales in Israel. This would be helpful for a human rights impact assessment, as recommended in the Ruggie Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In addition, Volvo can blacklist clients - including the Israeli army, police or any other Israeli authority - who are using Volvo equipment for the demolition of Palestinian property and for construction of the wall. The company can also blacklist clients who reside in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land or who are involved in illegal settlement activities.

Volvo’s expression of “regret” at the use of its equipment for destructive purposes is not sufficient. The BDS movement should hold Volvo and the Swedish Government to account for failing to intervene to prevent the use of Volvo equipment in Israel’s violations of international law, including human rights.


Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh