"What is at stake with the attacks against the BDS movement is the possibility of a myriad of social justice movements to hold corporations accountable: if Israel’s logic aimed at suppressing the BDS movement passes, it will shield corporations from accountability for human rights abuses of all sorts, committed by whoever the corporate actor and wherever the location."
Local communities, social movements and solidarity campaigns all over the world are struggling against the disastrous effects of the operations of multinational corporations and the impunity political and legal systems grant them. A long and diverse history of struggles across the globe has given us the possibility to learn and draw inspiration from, and build on examples and mechanisms to stop these corporations and hold them accountable for their crimes. From direct actions, to strikes, boycotts, divestments and shareholder actions up to court cases to stop the companies and demand reparations, movements have worked to raise awareness and claim justice.
The movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society, for example, has been profoundly inspired by encounters with South African movements and former anti-apartheid campaigners. The movement also references and connects to other struggles aimed at stopping colonial conquests, such as the boycotts in Ireland and India, and against regimes of racial segregations, such as the US Civil Rights movement. In these cases economic boycotts and pressure have been exerted in order to undermine the sustainability and economic profitability of repressive political regimes.
Many of the practices employed by the BDS movement have been developed in collaboration with campaigners working towards corporate accountability of transnational corporations (TNCs) who enjoy impunity for abuses committed by TNCs in States that either lack the will or ability to hold them accountable. This includes the fossil fuels movement, campaigns against the mining industry, and campaigns targeting the dirty deals of banks and international financial institutions.
Whether the targets are TNCs, that use their economic power and personal connections to ensure governments keep connivent with their human rights abuses, or TNCs, that profit from implementing illegal and criminal governmental policies, the exchange of tools and experiences between movements opposing these practices is an essential element of internationalism and unity among our struggles. Unfortunately, the attacks on movements for corporate justice are therefore also transversal and pose a threat to the capacity of social justice movements and actions as a whole. A clear case at stake is Israel’s ‘war on BDS’.
Since 2015, Israel has started state sponsored efforts to fight BDS campaigns, attempting to outlaw campaigning tactics and targeting Palestinian as well as Israeli and global activists. The Israeli Ministry of ‘Strategic Affairs’ is tasked to oversee these efforts. Millions of dollars are spent not only on lobbying but on more differentiated ‘task forces’, such as students ‘situation rooms’ where they target BDS on social media. The Ministry also runs a more obscure ‘tarnishing unit’ tasked with ‘analysis of these [global BDS] groups and for studying their characteristics and their modes of activity, as well as defining a strategy for combating them. In addition [it] will need to define important items that need to be brought to the attention of Military Intelligence.’ Israeli companies are already spying on global civil society with the explicit aim to dismantle these groups. Palestinian BDS activists, such as Omar Barghouti, have been intimidated, banned from travel, and Israeli laws have made calling for boycotts a civil offense that can lead to severe economic sanctions. Especially in Europe and the US, Israel is lobbying governments and courts to outlaw the right of campaigners, institutions and local governments to uphold international law and recognize Palestinians' rights.
What is at stake with the attacks against the BDS movement is the possibility of a myriad of social justice movements to hold corporations accountable: if Israel’s logic aimed at suppressing the BDS movement passes, it will shield corporations from accountability for human rights abuses of all sorts, committed by whoever the corporate actor and wherever the location.
Israel’s foremost legal argument is based on a completely convoluted notion of ‘non-discrimination’. As a result of innumerous struggles for equality and emancipation, today many constitutions and procurement laws include clauses that prohibit discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, sex or gender etc. Ironically Israel itself to this day rejects the decades old demand of the UN Committees for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Discrimination against Women to introduce the prohibition of discrimination into its own Basic Law. Instead, the Israel lobby distorts and misappropriates the concept to argue that targeting corporations and regimes for their human rights violations amounts to ‘discrimination’.
The Spanish District Court in Oviedo (Asturias) has recently ruled on the legality of a motion that declared the Municipality of Langreo an ‘Israeli Apartheid Free Zone’ and committed the Municipality ‘Not to enter into any agreement or arrangement with public institutions, companies and organizations that are involved, collaborate or get economic benefit from the violation of international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. The Court declared the motion void as it ‘violates the right not to suffer discrimination’. The appeal against this decision is ongoing, however, if upheld it will set a dangerous precedent prohibiting any form of divestment or accountability on the grounds of violations of human rights and international law. Fortunately, a UK court has rejected a similar argument against Leicester City Council’s decision to boycott Israeli settlement products. The UK government has also attempted to impose new laws, aimed at stopping the ‘spread of militant divestment campaigns against UK defence and Israeli firms’. Strong opposition by civil society efforts has so far averted such anti-democratic action. However, if these arguments are not defeated, the very possibility to exert local democracy in order to uphold human rights, as well as divest campaigns of many movements are at stake.
Other court cases risk silencing and intimidating politicians to prevent them from taking political or ethical positions against corporations or regimes. Even if an isolated case, French mayor Jean Claude Fernand Willem was fined after he had called for a boycott of Israeli products. The French government argued not only infringement of non discrimination clauses but tellingly that it was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ for the government to pursue the ‘legitimate aim, namely to protect the rights of Israeli producers’. Corporate interests trump human rights and the rights of people to freedom of expression and to hold corporations accountable.
In the US, state legislative assemblies have gone further and intend to actively punish companies that adhere to boycott or divestment calls from the BDS movement, by themselves boycotting and excluding them from public contracts. Unaware of the irony, these motions are using the very same tool of boycott that they are banning. Examples range from laws in Illinois and New Jersey that mandate state pension funds to divest from companies refusing to do business in Israel or the Palestinian territories, to the executive order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that asks state agencies under his control to divest from companies engaged in or adhering to BDS calls.
Israeli and corporate interests also converge by attempting to use the Government Procurement Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an argument to defend corporate impunity. In order to shield themselves against accountability, they falsely claim that the WTO rules prohibit targeting a regime for its human rights violations by excluding complicit companies from tenders and cooperations. However, while the WTO agreement prevents discrimination on the basis of the national origin of the company, it does not bar States and state actors from adopting policies that bar human rights violators from tenders or contracts.
If the ability to protest or criticize regimes and companies can only be determined by States and the UN Security Council, our ability and right to hold companies accountable would be handed over to the very powers that with their inaction or complicity make such popular action and struggles necessary in the first place.
Included here are only a few examples of the obstacles the BDS movement faces in our campaign to hold corporations and States accountable. Some of these arguments and tactics are already well known to other social justice movements, while others are new trends developed by the Israel lobby.
Thankfully, despite these ongoing attacks, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement continues to grow unabatedly. The first half of 2016 has seen already an impressive amount of victories for our campaigns. Large TNCs, such as the French multinational corporations Veolia and Orange have already pulled out of their dirty business with Israeli apartheid. Anglo-Danish giant G4S, that implements repression across the globe and supplies Israeli prisons and checkpoints, is feeling the heat. Israeli multinational corporations such as the military company Elbit and Israel’s water company Mekorot, have lost strategic contracts in previous years.
Even as we are successfully continuing our fight, we know that together with other social justice movements we are stronger. Whether in the streets protesting corporate crime, or claiming our rights against corporations through initiatives such as the People’s Treaty, we have an enormous task at hand. It is not only about pushing back on these anti-democratic and pro-corporate tactics and defending our right to protest. As campaigns and movements fighting corporate impunity, we need to gather momentum to affirm the right and, indeed, the urgency and obligation to stop corporations and regimes from violating human rights, in Palestine and across the globe.