Divestment campaign gains momentum in Europe

The tramway under construction in Jerusalem, February 2008. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

The Swedish national pension fund AP7 is the latest institution to follow the socially responsible investment example of Dutch ASN Bank by excluding the French transportation giant Alstom from its portfolio. Alstom was excluded because of the company’s involvement in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

Activists and researchers claim that the French companies Alstom and Veolia are directly implicated in maintaining illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and are playing a key role in Israel’s attempt to make its annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem irreversible. For this reason Dutch ASN Bank decided in 2006 to exclude Veolia from its portfolios, also excluding companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation. Other banks have since followed ASN Bank’s example towards socially responsible investment.

Swedish activists informed the public about the role of companies in benefiting from the occupation through several actions. The Swedish non-governmental organization Diakonia’s research on Mul-T-Lock factory in the Barkan Industrial Park in a West Bank settlement led to the October 2008 decision of owner Assa Abloy to divest from the company. At that time Veolia was bidding for an eight-year, $4.5 billion contract to run the subway in Stockholm county. Swedish journalists questioned politicians about Veolia’s role in an Israeli tramway project that links Israeli settlements and normalizes the illegal situation of the settlements. At the Give Veolia the Red Card event on 15 November 2008, passengers on the Stockholm subway were asked to attach a red card to their clothes to protest Veolia’s involvement in the the Jerusalem tramway on occupied Palestinian territory.

The protests are thought to have contributed to the decision of Swedish national pension fund AP7, one of the most important investors in Sweden and well-known for its highly ethical profile, to blacklist Alstom. AP7, which manages pension savings worth around 90 billion kronor ($15 billion), listed in its annual report for 2008 the companies it has to exclude from investment for ethical reasons. Alstom is pointed out as a company AP7 would have liked to invest in. However, the report said Alstom’s involvement in reported human rights abuses regarding the company’s participation in a railway project in Jerusalem made it not suitable for AP7’s investments.

Additionally, in mid-2008 AP7 decided to sell all its holdings in companies making cluster bombs and nuclear weapons. Chief executive Richard Grottheim told the press, “I expect other pension funds will follow my initiative.” The fact that AP7 diagnosed Alstom as a company not suitable for investments will most likely have the same effect.

On 16 March, Sandwell Council in the UK announced that Veolia failed to reach the shortlist of three companies bidding for a 25-year waste collection and recycling contract worth 1 billion pounds ($1.43 billion). The Palestine Solidarity Campaign started the Sandwell Bin Veolia Campaign, asking the public to sign a petition requesting that the council remove Veolia from the list of contractors approved. The petition argued that Veolia be removed because the company accepted contracts in Jerusalem in contravention of international law and United Nations resolutions.

Asked for the reasons for excluding Veolia from the shortlist, a Sandwell Council press officer responded that Veolia’s alleged activities played no part in the council’s decision-making process. “By law, the council is not permitted to allow non-commercial factors to influence the choice of a partner for its plans to improve waste, recycling and street cleansing services in Sandwell.” However, in a 10 Feburary 2009 article published by The Electronic Intifada this author along with attorney Daniel Machover asserted that UK law makes it perfectly legal to exclude Veolia from public contracts due to its “grave professional misconduct.”

In Melbourne, Australia the Veolia campaign will take off with the Dump Connex campaign to be launched on 30 March, focusing on the Veolia subsidiary that runs the train service in Melbourne. Activists will distribute 100,000 pamphlets to Melbourne’s train commuters. The pamphlets explain that riders should not only be angry because the company is providing an unsatisfactory transport service in Melbourne, but also because Veolia has signed a 30-year contract with Israel to operate a tramway that runs also in occupied Palestinian land. Commuters are asked to sign the card in the pamphlet and post it to Victorian State transport minister Lynne Kosky.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.

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