UN must name and shame settlement profiteers

Israel and the US are trying to prevent the United Nations from publishing a database of firms which abet war crimes in the occupied West Bank. (The White House/Flickr)

It is vital that a planned United Nations database of companies doing business in Israel’s illegal settlements is published this year.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, has reportedly asked firms to be included on that list for comments by this Friday.

Once that deadline has passed, he should make sure that the list is released without delay. Attempts by the US and Israel to halt the publication of the database – which the UN Human Rights Council agreed to compile in 2016 – must not succeed.

Similar blacklists proved to be valuable tools for campaigners against South African apartheid.

In 1980, a UN committee tasked with monitoring racism in South Africa established a register of sporting contacts with that country.

It named and shamed players who had rejected appeals for a boycott of South Africa, where sports were segregated based on race.

Repercussions

Hundreds of local authorities in Britain and Europe invoked the register to prohibit those included in it from using their sporting facilities. A number of African countries also refused to issue visas to players if they were included in the register.

As a result, siding with the oppressor over the oppressed had tangible repercussions for sporting careers. Many players gave commitments to stay away from South Africa so long as it remained under a racist regime.

In 1983, the UN’s committee on monitoring apartheid published its first register on entertainers who had performed in South Africa.

Some public authorities in Britain used that register to ban musicians whose name appeared on it from appearing in venues they administered.

The register listed such stars as Rod Stewart, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton and Elton John. Yet the UN committee made a point of removing entertainers who had performed in South Africa from the register if they pledged not to play there again.

As well as shaming artists who broke the boycott, the UN’s committee made a point of commending those who demonstrated support for the struggle against apartheid. Stevie Wonder, for example, was applauded for accepting a 1985 award in the name of Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned by the apartheid regime.

In 1987, the UN’s General Assembly voted that an oil embargo should be imposed on South Africa, the economy of which relied heavily on oil imports. An intergovernmental group was also formed within the UN to track which firms supplied the apartheid regime with energy.

The group worked closely with grassroots campaigners around the world.

I was among the founders of the Shipping Research Bureau – a Dutch group within the anti-apartheid movement. We provided much information to UN bodies on oil firms’ involvement in South Africa.

Such work exposed the alliance between big business and the apartheid regime.

The US fossil fuels giant Mobil came under so much pressure that it announced its withdrawal from South Africa in 1989.

The UN’s lists on profiteers from South African apartheid were all compiled – using research by grassroots campaigners – in an age before the Internet.

Sharing information is considerably easier today, so lists of firms who abet Israel’s illegal activities could have an even greater impact than similar databases of those who collaborated South African apartheid.

The Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has made considerable advances – so far without the aid of UN databases. The movement has been able to exert enough pressure on Veolia, Orange and CRH that those major corporations have quit Israel.

That Israel wants to nip the planned database in the bud is a sign of desperation. Israel is already a pariah state in the minds of ordinary people around the world. If Israel’s crimes do not cease, its isolation will grow.

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I have no trust in the US's honesty when dealing with Israel's occupation of Palestine. We have obstructed the 2 state solution and allowed Israel free hand in detaining anyone who might tell the world about a racist Israel.

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A U.N. compiled registry of companies engaged in traffic with illegal settlements will prove invaluable to the Palestinian cause. But we must not fall into the trap of referring to the registry as a 'blacklist'. Public exposure of these connections serves an opposite function to that of the blacklist. The latter instrument is wielded under cover, its very existence commonly denied, and has as its aim not the open pursuit of justice but the dishonest suppression of that pursuit. Israel operates blacklists. The BDS movement has no affinity with such tactics. We want the facts known and freely discussed, so that the public can decide whether to support companies engaged in illegal activities on behalf of an apartheid state.

And by the way, if the U.N. Secretary General's office tries to block publication of the registry, let's make sure the list is circulated in the wider world outside that organization.

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Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh