Tarso Genro, governor of Rio Grande do Sol in Brazil, concluded a deal to develop a huge Israeli military technology center in Porto Alegre over the past few weeks. One day before signing the contract with the arms company Elbit, Genro was in the occupied West Bank, where he witnessed first-hand the oppression on which Israel’s weapons industry thrives.
Perhaps even more painful than the signing of the deal itself are the arguments he later gave to “defend” his action. It was very sad to see Genro stating — in an interview with the Brazilian publication Opera Mundi — that international law and human rights are not criteria for international commercial relations.
Confronted with Elbit’s track record of violations of human rights and international law, Genro argued that “It is not possible to decide on technological options, at [the] national or regional level, based on this criteria.” He added that “Ethics in global commercial relations is defined by national interests” (“Despite cricisim, Tarso Genro signs agreement with Israeli military,” 29 April 2013 [Portuguese]).
This argument flies in the face of the Brazilian constitution, which affirms the prevalence of human rights in international relations. It is also legally wrong. A vast body of legal analysis, UN guidelines and resolutions underscore that state and state institutions are obliged to respect and ensure respect for international law.
Elbit is profiting from the construction of Israel’s settlements and its wall in the West Bank, both of which are considered war crimes. Because of this involvement in violations of international law, Elbit is subject to a global campaign to stop contracts and investments in it.
In his interview with Opera Mundi, Genro defended the deal as an issue of national interest. The same argument was brought forward in the 1970s and early ’80s by the apartheid regime in South Africa and its allies in the UK and the US. Margaret Thatcher did not want to force UK companies to give up on the profits reaped from apartheid. Yet, by the 1990s, the global boycott movement had cost these companies a high economic price and US companies are still being sued for reparations in US courts.
Getting out of the dirty business in time has proven to be the better choice economically. The Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) is only seven years old, and is today at a stage that South African activists reached only after two decades.
Elbit itself has admitted that BDS is having impact. Its latest annual report states: “Over the past several years there have been calls in Europe and elsewhere to reduce trade with Israel … There can be no assurance that restrictive laws, policies or practices directed towards Israel or Israeli businesses will not have an adverse impact on our business.”
Global business is increasingly careful today to perform or commission risk analysis before making investment decisions. Most risk analysis institutes include ethical standards in their rating and many are specialized in doing only that. Such institutions are visiting Palestine increasingly often in order to inform their ratings, which are based on environmental impact, human rights and good governance.
Elbit scores badly on all three counts. The Israeli projects in which Elbit is involved have meant the uprooting of tens of thousands of olive trees. Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, has called for an end to financial relations with Elbit because of its grave violations of human rights (“UN independent expert calls for boycott of businesses profiting from Israeli settlements,” UN News Centre, 25 October 2012).
Furthermore, the high level of corruption in the entire Israeli military sector has been denounced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (“Israel should ensure that remaining concerns should not undermine its progress on foreign bribery, says OECD,” 16 December 2009).
Meanwhile, both India and the Philippines have banned some Israeli companies from bidding for contracts because of bribery (“India blacklists India Military Industries for 10 years,” Haaretz, 7 March 2012).
And starting with the Norwegian state pension fund in 2009, some 13 financial institutions have excluded Elbit from their portfolios (“Recommendation on the exclusion of the company Elbit Systems Ltd,” Norwegian Ministry of Finance, 15 May 2009).
What is sold by the pro-Israel lobby in Rio Grande do Sul as beneficial for the economy turns out to be not only a dirty but a risky deal. It is a deal with such deep political implications that one may hope it stimulates a serious debate at the federal and regional levels sooner rather than later.
“Silence of the good people”
During his visit to the West Bank, Genro heard many appeals from Palestinians urging him not to go ahead with this risky deal. At a reception for the delegation in Ramallah (at which this writer was present), Musa Hadid, the city’s mayor, made this eloquent plea: “Martin Luther King once said ‘The greatest tragedy is not the brutality of the evil people, but rather the silence of the good people.’ You are our friends, part of the good guys, and we hope you stand up against injustice.”
Rio del Grande do Sul has shown its support for the Palestinians on many occasions. Last year, Porto Alegre even welcomed a gathering of the World Social Forum focused on Palestine.
This commitment to Palestinian freedom is in stark contrast to Genro signing a contract with a company that helps Israel lock us into ghettoes.
A version of this article was previously published in Opera Mundi.
Jamal Juma’ is the coordinator of the Palestinian organization Stop the Wall.