Pressure on Veolia mounts

The tramway under construction in Jerusalem, 10 February 2008. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

In occupied East Jerusalem, the Israeli light rail system currently being built in violation of international law on seized Palestinian land by Veolia, a European company, will fundamentally change the landscape. Veolia and partner Alstom have continued their involvement in the disputed project, drawing the attention of financial institutions and civil organizations. Recently, The Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem, with a membership of 18 institutions, blacklisted Veolia as a company to be targeted for undermining Palestinian human rights, because it has willfully ignored calls to withdraw from the light rail project.

Matthijs Bierman, director of fast-growing Dutch Triodos Bank, noted this summer in their publication Triodos Nieuws that clients “vote with their feet.” Every time they buy a product or a service they vote in favor of the company. However, customers can also cast a negative vote by boycotting products, like they did with those exported by Apartheid-era South Africa. When asked about their policy on investing in Veolia and Alstom, the bank replied it does not and will not invest in the companies. Triodos does not want to support dictatorial regimes because of their undemocratic character. In Palestine, due to the Israeli occupation, democracy is impossible. That is why Triodos explicitly excludes companies that contribute to the continuation of occupation, like Veolia, Alstom, Motorola, and Caterpillar.

In an interview recently published on the website of Business and Human Rights Recourse Center, analysts with a Swedish consulting firm that assists investors in responsible investment, Ethix, explain that UN resolutions on Israeli settlements are taken into account when screening companies for its clients. Ethix has screened companies that supply mechanized vehicles to destroy Palestinian homes, or that manufacture and repeatedly deliver armaments used against civilians in contravention to humanitarian law. Ethix learned about Veolia and Alstom’s participation in the Jerusalem light rail project through media reports and determined that it did not meet international standards of responsible investment.

In the legal case against Veolia and Alstom in France, the companies have raised a variety of objections to evade a fundamental discussion in court. For example, they initially claimed that they never signed a contract with the government of Israel. However, the court in Nanterre decided in June that Veolia and Alstom had to submit the full contract on the light rail, which was signed on 22 September 2004, including its annexes, as well as a legalized translation in French. In early September the companies handed all the required documents to the court, and the next hearing was set 24 November 2008 where lawyers representing the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Association Solidarity France Palestine will present their case. The court will decide how to proceed after this hearing.

Dutch pension funds have excluded companies involved in the production of weapons due to pressure from clients. Inspired by this policy, activists have asked PGGM, one of the main Dutch pension funds, to divest from Veolia, one of the 4,500 companies in its portfolio. Every year Dutch Sustainability Research independent institution screens all companies for possible involvement in violations of human rights for PGGM. Although Veolia has not been flagged by Dutch Sustainability Research, PGGM has promised to research the company’s activities and determine if action is required. In other European countries, activists have started to influence pension funds and city councils to exclude Veolia from their dealings.

For the past few years activists in Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland have sent a clear message to institutions in their countries that they should stay away from companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation. By ignoring the numerous calls by activists to withdraw from the Jerusalem light rail project, Veolia and Alstom have only served to solidify their image as companies that don’t care about human rights and international law.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.