Today, two movements for the promotion of human rights in Sudan and Palestine seek to emulate the successful role played by boycotts, divestment and sanctions in achieving democracy and equality in South Africa. The two movements, however, have received radically different receptions on Capitol Hill. This double standard testifies to Washington’s selectivity when it comes to promoting human rights around the globe and its tendency to overlook the faults of its allies while using human rights as a pretext to punish its adversaries.
On 31 December, US President George W. Bush signed into law the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act of 2007, which was passed unanimously by Congress earlier in the month. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd, authorizes state and local governments to divest their holdings from corporations that profit from dealings with the Sudanese government and immunizes mutual fund managers from lawsuits for doing the same.
The practical impact of this legislation, however, is doubtful. US corporate investment in Sudan is minimal due to a host of sanctions and the connection between US corporate profits and human rights abuses committed by the Sudanese government or the Janjaweed militia is indirect at best. Nevertheless, any encouragement for divesting from corporations that profit from human rights abuses is a welcome step towards increasing corporate accountability.
If Congress believes that institutions should divest from corporations that profit from human rights abuses in one country, then morality and logic dictate that US policy should promote divestment from any corporation that profits from human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
The dictates of politics, however, intrude on the ability of Members of Congress to act in an ethically consistent fashion when it comes to Israel and the human rights abuses it inflicts daily on millions of Palestinian civilians living under its forty-year military occupation and siege of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
In the case of Israel, the link between US policy, human rights violations, and corporate profiteering is much more direct and tangible than in Sudan. Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid. A memorandum of understanding signed in August between the two countries promised to increase US military aid to Israel by 25 percent per year, totaling $30 billion over the next decade. The Pentagon then takes this taxpayer money and fills Israel’s shopping cart with goodies from US corporations: Caterpillar bulldozers for the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of ten of thousands of olive trees; advanced communications gear from Motorola to facilitate Israel’s myriad forms of travel restrictions and collective punishment of Palestinian civilians; and Lockheed Martin F-16’s and Boeing F-15’s to demolish Palestinian civilian infrastructure and injure and kill civilians.
Given that Israel repeatedly violates the terms of the US Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits US weapons from being used in an offensive manner or against civilians, and that US corporations are profiting handsomely from its violations of Palestinian human rights, one could reasonably expect that Capitol Hill would be at least as adamant, if not more, in encouraging divestment from these corporations as well as being supportive of boycotts to protest these violations.
Not so. In fact, just the opposite is true. Last year the House of Representatives voted 414-0 to condemn British institutions for voting to engage in boycott campaigns against Israeli institutions and products to protest Israel’s human rights abuses.
Nor did Senator Dodd — the champion of divestment from Sudan — have anything to say about US corporate profiteering from Israel’s human rights abuses in a recent “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In it, Dodd argues for sustained US engagement after last month’s Annapolis conference and enumerates confidence-building measures that Israelis and Palestinians should take to bolster recently launched negotiations.
Dodd’s well-intentioned letter would be greatly strengthened if he and other Members of Congress would apply the same principles that govern their encouragement of divestment from Sudan towards ending US taxpayer subsidies to corporations that profiteer from Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.
Josh Ruebner is the Grassroots Advocacy Coordinator for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. This commentary was originally published by the Institute for Middle East Understanding and is republished with the author’s permission.