The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in London published on its website a link to my article “Volvo: Symbol of safety or human rights abuses?,” and asked the company to respond. The article highlights the use of Volvo construction machinery by the Israeli military as a tool in the occupation, which is the reason behind recent calls for economic pressure on Volvo. Mr. M. Wikforss, Vice President of Media Relations & Corporate News of Volvo Group wrote a letter in response, which is also published on the Resource Centre’s website. In this article I react to Volvo’s arguments.
Volvo Group and Volvo Cars
In an email accompanying the letter to the Resource Centre, Wikforss clarifies that Volvo Cars and Volvo Group are not part of the same company. Volvo Cars used to be part of the Volvo Group, but was sold in 1999 to the Ford Motor Company. Volvo Group consists of nine different business areas, including Volvo Trucks and Volvo Construction Equipment. Volvo Construction Equipment is the manufacturer of the piece of equipment seen in the photo that was published in the article, according to Wikforss.
Although Volvo Group and Volvo Cars are not part of the same company, there are still close ties. When Volvo Group sold its car division to Ford Motor Company, both companies established a new company, Volvo Trademark Holding AB, to manage the Volvo brand. It is owned by Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Group. The president and CEO of Volvo Group, and the chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Company manage the Volvo Trademark Company. It holds its offices in Volvo Group’s headquarters in Stockholm.
The links between the companies may become even closer, if the Forbes and Reuters reports on Volvo Groups interest to buy a minority stake in Volvo Cars turn out to be right. The news was first published in the Swedish business daily Dagens Industri. The reaction of Leif Johansson, CEO of Volvo Group, to the reports was: “No comment, that’s not a debate I want to get into.”
The vision that Volvo wants their cars to be the safest and most exciting car experience is obviously from Volvo Cars. However, safety is also important for Volvo Group, and is one of its corporate values. According to the website the wheeled excavator, which has been used by Israeli forces to demolish Palestinian homes in the West Bank, is, “A complete machine that’s perfect for any job — both on and off the road.” And about the Volvo wheel loader that is also used by Israel to violate Palestinians’ human rights, Volvo Group writes, “It’s our job to help you do yours — no matter how big.”
Code of Conduct or lip service?
In his letter Wikforss writes that Volvo Group does not condone the destructive use of Volvo equipment and would regret the use of its products for destructive purposes. However, “we do not have any control over the use of our products, other than to affirm in our business activities a Code of Conduct that decries unethical behavior,” according to Wikforss.
The Volvo Group Code of Conduct contains the following sentence on human rights: “within its sphere of influence, the Volvo Group supports and respects the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights and ensures that it is not complicit in human rights abuses.”
In its advisory opinion on the wall the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reaffirmed the illegality of the construction of the wall and Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. According to the ICJ construction activities should stop immediately and the wall and settlements should be dismantled. Palestinians who lost property because of the illegal construction activities should be compensated for their loss.
The use of Volvo construction equipment in illegal activities is a breach not only of international law, but also of Volvo’s own Code of Conduct. Volvo Group is informed about the illegal practices of Israel in the occupied territories, and knows the Israeli military use Volvo equipment in a destructive way. It is not sufficient to sit back and refer to a Code of Conduct. Volvo should be concerned and rather investigate how construction equipment can end up this way in the hands of the Israeli military. The company should enforce the Code of Conduct in its dealings at all levels. Volvo Group’s Code of Conduct becomes a meaningless piece of paper, when the company is not acting upon it.
Caterpillar bulldozers, just like Volvo’s Construction Equipment, are also used in the illegal construction and destruction activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. In early July 2007 the parents of Rachel Corrie appealed in the USA to reinstate a law suit against Caterpillar. Rachel Corrie was killed when she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in 2003. “Caterpillar sold this product knowing — or it should have known — it would cause exactly this harm,” professor of law Erwin Chemerinsky told the three judges from the Court of Appeals. Corrie’s parents sued Caterpillar, which manufactured the bulldozer, seeking to hold the company civilly liable for aiding and abetting human rights violations. Chemerinsky insisted that as long as the company knew how the bulldozers were being used, it can be held liable under common law dating back centuries.
Four Palestinian families whose relatives were killed or injured when the Israeli army flattened their homes joined the Corries in filing suit. The judges have not indicated when they would rule. There might come a moment when Palestinian families also decide to sue Volvo, when Volvo machinery was involved in harming them or their family members.
Research, commissioned in 2006 by United Civilians for Peace (UCP), made clear that the Dutch construction company Riwal provided cranes that were used for the construction of the wall. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ben Bot, asked Riwal to end its involvement, based on the ICJ advisory opinion that the wall built on Palestinian land is illegal. The company promised to stop its activities.
However, in June 2007 Riwal cranes were photographed on the wall building site near Bethlehem, and sent to the author by a Dutch contact. The information was passed on to United Civilians for Peace and the ministry of foreign affairs. The current Dutch Foreign Minister, Mr. Maxime Verhagen, warned Riwal to terminate its involvement in the construction of the wall in the West Bank. The Israeli daily Haaretz wrote that Verhagen said in a media statement on 19 June 2007, “I expect Riwal to stop providing cranes for the wall. I hope this will be the last we hear of it,” and that “the government will keep a close watch” on the company’s actions. The Dutch foreign ministry suggested that the company abide by contractual usage stipulations.
Volvo and apartheid South Africa
In a submission to the Special Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearing on the role of business, the African National Congress praised Volvo. “South African and international companies were involved in breaking the oil embargo and the laws of a number of countries. National and multinational companies continued to supply fuel to the SADF notwithstanding protests from their shareholders (international) and representations from the ANC. They justified their actions by claiming they were forced to do so by the laws of South Africa … Among the notable exceptions are the Volvo Group in Sweden and Wates Construction in the UK. …” The late President of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, said in May 1987, “It is difficult for us to accept the argument of business both inside and outside the country that it is politically impotent. Business has chosen, until now, to align itself with and benefit from the economic and military state that is part of the apartheid system.”
It is clear from the past that Volvo has the capacity to make the right choice.
Adri Nieuwhof is an independent consultant and human rights advocate based in the Netherlands.