Volvo prides itself on being a byword for sturdiness, safety and reliability. After a careful examination of the vehicle-maker’s investment in Israel, perhaps it should also become synonymous with enabling torture.
The Swedish company has a direct shareholding of 26.5 percent in the Israeli company Merkavim, manufacturer of the Mars Prisoner Bus. This bus has been specifically designed for use by the Israeli Prison Authority to transport Palestinians apprehended in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to facilities within Israel’s internationally-recognized borders. The remainder of Merkavim is owned by Mayer’s Cars and Trucks, which doubles up as the exclusive representative of Volvo in Israel.
Evidence amassed by human rights monitors indicates that torture is widespread within Israeli detention centers. Although the country’s high court ruled in 1999 that some interrogation methods should be outlawed, Israel continues to approve torture in cases where it is deemed “necessary,” Amnesty International has found. An important loophole in the court’s ruling indicated that torture is permissible in cases where Israeli security forces face an imminent threat. Israel’s attorney general has been all-too-willing to invoke that loophole in order to approve the use of torture, despite how Israel has ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Each year Israel locks up an average of 700 Palestinian children, often for offenses no more serious than throwing stones. The organization Defence for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-PS) says that ill-treatment is common while detainees are being transported to prison. “All are subjected to verbal threats and insults,” Rifat Kassis, director of DCI-PS’s office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said. “Some are beaten up, kicked, made to sit in an uncomfortable way. We have children who are handcuffed and blindfolded as well. All of these are methods of restraining children in a painful way.”
During September, three children were reportedly given electric shocks by Israeli interrogators in the Jewish-only settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. One of the children was only 14 years of age. A recent investigation by DCI-PS and other anti-torture groups found that out of a sample of 100 children arrested by Israeli forces last year, 69 percent were beaten and kicked and 12 percent threatened with rape or another form of sexual assault.
Kassis also said that by bringing detainees from the occupied West Bank into Israel, the Merkavim buses are facilitating violations of international humanitarian law. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, persons convicted for offenses in an occupied territory may only be jailed within that territory.
A representative of Merkavim told me that the company does “not wish to speak to journalists.” According to its website, the Mars Prisoner Bus is “the perfect solution for conveying prisoners under guard.” Containing six separate compartments, the bus allows for “full surveillance during the sensitive, high-risk drive from one secured facility to another.” Among its features are wide windows “fitted with armored glass to prevent breakouts” and “an advanced intercom system and closed-circuit TV.”
Per-Martin Johansson, a spokesman for Volvo Buses, said that the Swedish corporation “can’t control” what affiliated companies do. “Vehicles to transport prisoners can be found in every country all over the world,” he added. “These buses are not special for Israel. They need them in every country to make sure prisoners are not escaping.”
Johansson’s statement contrasts with the high ethical standards to which Volvo is nominally committed. In 2003 Volvo’s board of directors rubber-stamped a “code of conduct” for the company. It says that the company supports “internationally proclaimed human rights and ensures that it is not complicit in human rights abuses.”
Despite that code, Volvo has faced numerous accusations that its products are being used as tools of Israeli oppression. In April this year Israeli forces were photographed operating Volvo bulldozers in the Palestinian village of al-Walaja. The forces were carrying out work related to the massive wall that Israel has continued to build on occupied land in the West Bank, despite a 2004 opinion issued by the International Court of Justice declaring the project illegal. The use of Volvo bulldozers in the destruction of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and in the wider West Bank has similarly been documented, with the work of Adri Nieuwhof, a contributor to The Electronic Intifada, proving valuable in highlighting how Volvo profits from the occupation.
Along with its prisoner bus, Merkavim also produces the Mars Defender Bus. The Israeli public transport company Egged runs a fleet of the latter vehicles in the services it provides to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Like the prisoner bus, the Mars Defender contains a Volvo-made chassis.
Mauricio Lazala, a researcher with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre in London, said that major companies like Volvo should study the impact of their corporate activities. “This is especially important in conflict areas,” he added. “In conflict areas, abuses can have very ugly manifestations. Therefore, companies should be doubly careful.”
At a session held in London this month, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine — an investigative body inspired by the late British intellectual and anti-war campaigner Bertrand Russell — concluded that a number of private corporations “play a very decisive role” in enabling Israel to commit crimes against humanity.
Although Volvo was not one of the companies identified by the tribunal, it is facilitating some of the offenses deemed “reprehensible” by this body. These included the provision of services to Israeli settlements and assistance to the construction of the “apartheid wall” in the West Bank. A statement issued by the tribunal noted that corporations complicit in Israeli violations of human rights have placed themselves “on the wrong side of international opinion, morality and law.” As a result, they are “undermining the very integrity and credibility of international law and the institutions that underpin it,” added the statement, which was endorsed by former South African government minister Ronnie Kasrils, veteran French diplomat Stephane Hassel, Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire and ex-US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.
Frank Barat, the tribunal’s coordinator, said that while it can be legally difficult to prosecute such companies, public campaigns can pressure them into changing their behavior. “What people can do is push their governments to divest from those companies,” he said. “If a company is helping to build the wall [in the West Bank] it is helping an illegal act, so it should be sanctioned.”
Volvo’s attempts to justify its investments in Israel are disingenuous. The corporation cannot claim that the activities of a subsidiary have nothing to do with its headquarters in Gothenburg or that Merkavim’s buses are no different from other prison buses found around the world. It is abundantly clear that these vehicles are tailored especially to meet the sadistic “needs” of the Israeli occupation; indeed, that is their selling point.
Supplying Israel’s prison services is not analogous to aiding the prison services of any other country. Israel deliberately uses mass imprisonment and torture to deny Palestinians the right to resist their occupation. Addameer, a prisoner support group, has documented how 650,000 Palestinians — one-fifth of the population living in the occupied territories — have been incarcerated since the occupation began in 1967.
Whatever Volvo may say, the truth is that it has become a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation. Drivers in Europe and America might feel secure as they slide into the well-upholstered seat of a car made by Volvo. In Palestine, the same company is facilitating the torture of children.
David Cronin’s book Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation is published by Pluto Press (www.plutobooks.com).