Putting words of support into boycott action

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

The Derail Veolia and Alstom Campaign, operating in full coordination with the leadership of the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), is in full swing. After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized Israel in Geneva, the BNC called on Iran to cut its business ties with Veolia Environment and Alstom. The French transportation giants are involved in the Israeli light rail project in occupied Jerusalem, linking the city with the illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Veolia and Alstom are playing a key role in Israel’s attempt to make its annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem irreversible. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remarked on the construction of the light rail in August 2005, “I believe that this should be done, and in any event, anything that can be done to strengthen Jerusalem, construct it, expand it and sustain it for eternity as the capital of the Jewish people and the united capital of the State of Israel, should be done.”

The BNC is the major voice of Palestinian civil society, unifying a broad spectrum of more than 170 Palestinian non-governmental organizations, political parties and trade unions that have endorsed the July 2005 Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Iran could give substance to its criticism of Israel’s practices towards Palestinians by acting upon the call of the Palestinian BNC to “take the necessary steps to ban Veolia and Alstom and their subsidiaries from any contracts and operations in the country.” According to the Tehran Times, the Tehran Municipality and Veolia agreed to collaborate on the implementation of some projects concerning the environment and the development of the urban transport system. Alstom has a headquarters in Tehran and received a number of large contracts, including a 192 million euro contract with Iran’s state railways in 1999 and a larger 375 million euro contract to supply 50 turbo compressors to Iran in 2002.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, has consistently expressed its opposition to the Israeli Jerusalem light rail project. In a fact sheet on the subject in March 2007, the PLO Negotiation Support Unit repeated its objections to the colonial project, stating that the light rail violates international law and is not catering to the needs of Palestinian civilians. In addition, in October 2007, the PLO joined Association France Palestine Solidarity (AFPS) in the complaint against Veolia Transport and Alstom, challenging the legality under French law of Veolia and Alstom’s contracts concerning the light rail project. The legal action undertaken by AFPS and the PLO is seeking the cancellation of the contracts for the construction and running of the light rail in occupied Jerusalem between Alstom, Veolia and the Israeli government, and is also aimed to prohibit the companies from executing the contract.

The tribunal of Nanterre ruled on 15 April 2009 that the complaint of AFPS falls within its jurisdiction. Veolia and Alstom’s claim that there was no ground for a ruling by a French court turned out to be unfounded. On technical grounds the request by the PLO to be a co-plaintiff was rejected. The court can now start to look into the substance of the complaint, unless Alstom and Veolia exercise their right to appeal within one month. On 8 June 2009, the court will convene a meeting to decide when the hearings of the trial against companies will start.

In the same month, Veolia received another blow at its home front. The BDS group in Bordeaux announced that the company had lost a $1 billion contract on the management of the biggest French urban network in the city.

The implication of Veolia in the light rail project in Jerusalem provoked intense debates. The Greater Bordeaux local government stated its decision was based on commercial factors. However, according to European Law, local governments have the power to exclude an economic operator from bidding for a contract or to reject any such bid where it is found that the individual or organization has committed an act of “grave misconduct” in the course of its business of profession. Directive 2004/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 on the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts is explicit about this. Attorney Daniel Machover argued in a letter to a local London council in the UK that Veolia’s involvement in the Jerusalem light rail project involves grave misconduct, because it assists Israel in its violation of international law.

In the UK, several local campaigns are sprouting to derail Veolia from a number of large public works contracts. From Hampshire County to Liverpool to Camden to South Yorkshire, local authorities are facing mounting political, and sometimes legal, pressure from Palestine solidarity groups, mainly associated with PSC, to exclude Veolia from bidding for public projects. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council decided not to consider further Veolia’s bid for the “Waste Improvement Plan” contract in March 2009.

Activists in Ireland are approaching city councils with the request not to enter or renew contracts with Veolia. In response, Galway City Council adopted on 20 April 2009 a motion calling on the city manager not to renew the city’s water services contract with Veolia with a majority of 12 out of 14 votes. Councillors were inundated with hundreds of emails from all over the world urging support for the motion. In February 2009, a similar motion was adopted by the Sligo County Council. Galway councillor for Labor, Billy Cameron, remarked in an interview that he believed Veolia has serious questions to answer with regard to its involvement in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Cameron noted that the international Derail Veolia Campaign has had serious effects already. “Veolia did not win contracts in Stockholm, West Midlands (UK) and Bordeaux amounting to $7.5 billion.” Cameron firmly believes that the movement to blacklist Veolia is only beginning and the message must go out to companies that international law and human rights take precedent over profit.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate. Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights activist and commentator.