The current administration is not only reneging on promises made to “uphold and incentivize” responsible behavior by U.S. companies, but is also violating its solemn duty and legal obligation to uphold the principles of the Fourth Geneva Convention to not recognize or assist an illegal situation under international humanitarian law. Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are war crimes under international law and are responsible for decades of suffering by the Palestinian people. Companies are contributing to, and profiting from, the maintenance, development, and expansion of illegal settlements. Unfortunately, there are ways in which the current administration is actively seeking to codify these violations in law.
On February 12, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a long awaited report with a database of over 100 companies with specific links to Israeli settlements in the OPT, including East Jerusalem.
The list of companies is an outgrowth from the 2013 UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) which investigated the impact of Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the OPT. The FFM found that “business enterprises have, directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of the settlements.”
Amnesty International has come to the same conclusion. A 2019 report, Destination: Occupation, details how digital tourism companies contribute to systematic human rights abuses against Palestinians and profit from war crimes by listing properties and attractions in illegal Israeli settlements.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights and humanitarian law. They must undertake a due diligence process to assess and address any negative human rights impacts of their activities.
An Amnesty UK briefing found that an adequate human rights due diligence process must conclude that companies doing business with illegal settlements are linked or contribute to human rights abuses.
If the U.S. wanted to restore its credibility as a proponent of human rights and humanitarian law, it should have welcomed the release of the OHCHR list as a positive step in promoting responsible business conduct. Instead in a statement, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo condemned the database as an example of UN “anti-Israel bias”, saying it facilitates the “discriminatory boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) campaign.” He vowed the US would not support the database in any way. In addition, the State Department released guidance asking US companies to provide notification should there be any efforts to “intimidate or harass” them because of their inclusion in the database, and to enable the “Department of State to examine the use of available legal and policy tools to counter such efforts against any U.S. companies.”
US Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also released statements calling the list “anti-Israel” and “akin to a blacklist”. Senator Cardin said, “The United States cannot stand by while American businesses are being pressured by a foreign entity because of their work in Israel, one of our key allies.” However, the list does not speak to companies operating in or with Israel; it comprises companies operating in or with illegal settlements in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank.
The database is akin to the 111-page UN report released in August 2019 which established the degree to which Myanmar’s military uses military-owned businesses, foreign companies, and arms deals to support brutal operations against ethnic groups that constitute serious crimes under international law. The report’s four annexes list military-owned businesses and foreign and domestic businesses that contribute to or benefit from the Myanmar military and its operations. In fact, the report went much further than the current OHCHR database and called for targeted sanctions, arms embargoes, and for the international community to sever ties with the companies. Yet, Pompeo and other US government officials did not accuse the UN of being “anti-Myanmar” or “biased” at the time.
The OHCHR list is also not part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. It does not call for any action comparable to those found in the report on Myanmar. The report is a straight-forward response to the fact that Israel’s settlements in the OPT are war crimes under international humanitarian law and have led to decades of human rights violations against the Palestinian people. Yet, they continue to grow with impunity, helped by the support of foreign businesses.
It appears the US government is using these claims of anti-Israel bias as a cover to not hold US businesses accountable for their activities that contribute to maintaining illegal settlements and systematic human rights abuses against Palestinians.
Amnesty International welcomes the database as an important step towards accountability.
If the US government is to live up to its commitments to protect the human rights of those negatively impacted by business activities and its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, it should cooperate with the OHCHR and provide the requested information on US companies. Finally, it should ensure that US companies urgently end their involvement in settlement-related activities and ban all settlement products from entering the US market.