Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns are succeeding all around the world, and the boycott of Veolia is having an impact in France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Following on the heels of a successful four month campaign to boycott Connex as Melbourne’s rail provider in Australia, Ruth Tenne turns our attention to efforts to apply pressure on UK councils such as Camden to behave ethically and reject Veolia due to its direct involvement in building light-rail to link illegal Jewish settlements.
In his visit to Israel and the OPT in November 2008, the Foreign Secretary spoke out against settlement activity and has said on numerous occasions that continued settlement construction is an obstacle to peace. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office clearly states on its website that “The UK considers that Israeli settlement building anywhere in the OPTs is illegal under international law. This includes settlements in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank”. Yet, local authorities in Britain defy the declared policy of the FCO by employing Veolia – a multi-national French waste company. Veolia Environment is a leading partner in the CityPass consortium which is contracted to build a light rail tramway system linking Israel to illegal Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.
Camden, which is one of the largest boroughs in London, has been employing Veolia for the past six years for its street cleaning, and in spite of a former challenge from the local branch of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (CPSC), the Executive committee of the Council decided, without putting the contract for tender (as the EU regulations require), to extend Veolia’s contract for a further 7 years as from February 2010. In their report (17 April 2009), the local paper, the Camden New Journal, challenged the Council’s decision on commercial grounds noting that “although many of the details of the Town Hall’s negotiations with Veolia remain secret under confidentiality rules, the council’s own report into the contract admits that by re-awarding Veolia’s deal, Camden “does not test the market and is less transparent to the waste industry and more generally… does not allow for competitive dialogue and negotiation… (and) does not attract alternative solutions…”.
Following the decision of the Council, which was taken without any consultation and discussion with the public, I followed CPSC former challenge to the Council with a letter sent a letter to all Camden councillors which was copied to the constituency MPs – Glenda Jackson and Frank Dobson. The letter was sent in my capacity as a resident of Camden noting that I “was very astonished to learn recently that Camden Council decided to renew its contract with Veolia – which is due to terminate in 2010 – without consulting the residents of Camden Borough who are served by this French company”.
It went on to say that
as a long-standing peace activist I am aware that the parent company of Veolia Environmental Services is facilitating Israel’s violations of the Geneva Convention and international law in the occupied Palestinian territories. … Veolia Environment is a leading partner in the CityPass consortium which is contracted to build a light rail tramway system linking Israel to illegal Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Once built, the rail system will help to cement Israel’s hold on occupied East Jerusalem and tie the settlements firmly into the State of Israel. The rail system will also have a very harmful impact on the daily life and livelihood of residents of Abu-Dis, a small town on the border of East Jerusalem which is twinned with Camden through Camden-Abu-Dis Friendship Association. CADFA was launched in October 2004 and includes representatives from Camden Trades Council, trade union branches as well as a growing number of residents across the Borough who are concerned about Israel’s abuse of human rights and the expansion of its illegal settlements on Palestinian land (www.camdenabudis.net).
The rail system is due for completion in 2020, with Veolia responsible for its operation. The first line will open in 2010. Through its involvement in this project, the company is playing a key role in Israel’s attempt to make its annexation of the Palestinian territory of East Jerusalem irreversible. “As a willing agent of these policies, Veolia is undermining any chance of a just peace for the Palestinian people.”
The letter had also highlighted the main legal points that Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights found as making a strong legal case for local authorities to exclude Veolia Environmental Services from bidding for their contracts. Those are:
- The Veolia Group is one commercial entity, so any part of it is implicated in the misconduct of any other part.
- Under the Public Contract Regulations 2006 a company may be excluded from bidding if it has “committed an act of grave misconduct in the course of its business”.
- Through Veolia Transport’s participation in the CityPass consortium project, the whole Veolia Group, including its subsidiary Veolia Environmental Services, is implicated in facilitating Israel’s violation of Articles 49 and 53 of the 4th Geneva Convention. These violations in some cases in East Jerusalem amount to grave breaches of the Convention (i.e. war crimes).
- The UK’s Office of Government Commerce cites examples of grave misconduct sufficient to exclude companies from contracts, including transgressions relating to labour rights, health and safety, and the environment. Facilitating serious and far-reaching breaches of international law, including war crimes, is at least as serious misconduct as the examples cited above.
Veolia also violates international standards specifically established for business:
- The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (2000) state that enterprises should “Respect the human rights of those affected by their activities consistent with the host government’s international obligations and commitments”. The Palestinians’ land is illegally taken to build the tramway and they have to endure illegal settlements planted in their midst.
- The UN Global Compact (2000), of which Veolia is a member, states that businesses should support and respect the protection of international human rights within their spheres of influence, and make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses.
My letter was concluded by saying that “in light of the above arguments, I hope that as an elected councillor of the Borough you will take the necessary action to ensure that Camden Council will reconsider and revoke its doubtful, if not unlawful, decision to renew the contract with Veolia .”
Disappointed, but perhaps to be expected, only two councillors – one from the Labour party and another one from the Green party – took the trouble to reply to my letter indicating their support for its views. Although Camden Council is run now by a coalition of the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties, none of their councillors replied to my letter. On further consultations with the leaders of the Labour and Green Party on the Council, Camden PSC has decided to submit an official request for making a presentation to the full meeting of the Council.
In a surprising move, the Mayor of Camden sent CPSC an official refusal on the grounds that ”it was not considered that the actions of Veolia in East Jerusalem and Maale Adumin were matters in which the local authority had functions or which directly affected the area over which Camden Council has jurisdiction.” The Mayor’s response, which was based on the official Council’s Constitution, crudely means that the Council is not concerned with any activity Veolia may be involved in (be it legal or illegal) which is outside the Borough of Camden. This perhaps it is not surprising as Camden, unlike governmental bodies and departments or public utilities and big corporations, has no written ethical policy or code which may guide the actions of the Council and allow residents to appeal against the decisions of its officials. In the absence of such ethical criteria and the lack of willingness to be guided by international and human rights law, the Derail Veolia and Alstom campaign (another French multi-national which has a significant stake in the CityPass consortium) has been undertaken by ordinary citizens and human rights activists across Europe.
The growing French Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been instrumental in making Veolia lose a huge contract in Bordeaux. Dutch activists convinced a Dutch bank to divest from Veolia and applied pressure on other banks to follow suit. Swedish peace and justice groups, mainly connected to the Church of Sweden, cost Veolia a heavy $4.5 billion contract in running the Stockholm metro; British solidarity groups and activists have also contributed to excluding Veolia from a lucrative contract in the West Midlands and their campaign is likely to cause other local authorities to make similar decisions. Those European peace activists and other human rights and faith groups are working in full collaboration with the Palestinian BDS National Committee which campaigns against companies that sustain, or profit from, the illegal occupation of Palestinian land aiming “to strengthen and spread the culture of Boycott as a central form of civil resistance to Israeli occupation and apartheid”.
It may have taken several decades for a boycott strategy to have a significant influence on the demise of South Africa Apartheid regime, but the growing BDS movement is undoubtedly has a significant impact being acting as a wake up call which will help dislodge an entrenched Apartheid occupation by the State of Israel.
Contributed to PULSE by the author.
Ruth Tenne was born and bought up in Israel by staunch Zionist parents who were among the founders of the socialist Kibbutzim’s movement. She served as a conscript in the Israeli army during the 1956 Sinai War and as a reservist in the 1967 Six Days War. She is currently an active member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Camden- Abu Dis Friendship Association (CADFA), and Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP). She has written a number of articles/reviews – published in the Socialist Review, Morning Star, International Socialism Journal, Palestine News, and on the websites of Media Monitors Network, Palestine Chronicle and Middle East Online.