Swiss bank excludes company involved with illegal tramway

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

Palestine solidarity activists based in Basel, Switzerland demanded Bank Sarasin to divest from Veolia Environnement in early June, because of its involvement in the illegal tramway being built by Israel that runs through occupied East Jerusalem. Within a month Bank Sarasin replied with a five-page response, to explain its longstanding practice of assessing its sustainable investments. In its letter, Bank Sarasin referenced articles published by The Electronic Intifada, and stated that while it “is completely aware that the project in East Jerusalem is significant from a local perspective,” it evaluates Veolia from the perspective of its worldwide activities.

Another financial institution, The Swiss Alternative Bank (ABS), refers clients to Bank Sarasin’s sustainable investment funds. Established in 1990 at the initiative of people active in the area of development cooperation and environment, ABS holds offices in several parts of Switzerland and is a member of the the European Federation of Ethical and Alternative Banks. Inspired by the initiative of Palaestina-Solidaritaet, a client informed ABS about Bank Sarasin’s refusal to divest from Veolia. In response, ABS acknowledged that these investments are controversial and explained that Veolia does not meet its newly developed strict criteria for investment. As a result, ABS expects Bank Sarasin to influence Veolia to withdraw from the tramway project or to sell its shares in Veolia.

ABS will not sit back and wait for the steps Bank Sarasin will take; it has promised to once again assess all its portfolios on the basis of the strict new criteria to make sure that no funds are invested in Veolia.

Bank Sarasin agrees with the Swiss activists that the construction of the tramway is a clear violation of international law. It has stated that it will take the recent decision of the court in Nanterre on the legal action taken by the Association Solidarity France Palestine and the Palestine Liberation Organization against Veolia and Alstom into serious consideration. Just like the Dutch SNS Bank, Bank Sarasin has entered into “a critical dialogue with Veolia” about its role in the illegal Israeli tramway. However, Bank Sarasin does not want to divest before it has concluded the dialogue.

Bank Sarasin is expanding in the Middle East, and in 2008 Bank Sarasin-Alpen won the “Best Private Bank in the Middle East” award for the second consecutive year. Bank Sarasin is taking a risk by not divesting from Veolia, and based on its growing investments in the region it should be more concerned about its image.

Customers and investors increasingly want their bank to be serious about sustainability and corporate responsibility. Dutch ASN Bank and SNS Bank, and Swiss ABS and Bank Sarasin have sent clear signals to Veoila, and its stubbornness will only serve to draw the attention of more financial institutions. How long will it be before Veolia Environnement gets the message that the Israeli tramway being built on confiscated Palestinian land is illegal and that the company, just like Alstom before it, must withdraw from the project? One thing is certain, until they do, Palestine solidarity activists will continue to hold them, and the financial institutions which invest in them, accountable for their continued support of the illegal occupation and settlement of Palestinian land.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.

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