The following article appeared in the February 2014 edition of This Week in Palestine.
The theme for the February edition of TWIP, Human Rights in Palestine, is a fitting follow-up to the January edition on Innovative Palestine. Combined, these two themes reveal the resilience of the Palestinian people in overcoming the denial of their human rights through innovative methods. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the need for freedom is the driving force behind Palestinian innovation.
This article addresses an innovative area of Al-Haq’s work that seeks to challenge the relationship between business interests and the policies of the Israeli Occupying Power, which exploits the prolonged occupation of Palestinian territory for the benefit of Israeli and other transnational corporations (TNCs). This aspect of our work falls within a developing area of research and advocacy known as Business and Human Rights (BHR).
Prior to addressing the impact of TNCs on the human rights of the Palestinian people, it is important to understand how Al-Haq arrived at this important juncture in its history. Established in 1979 as the first Palestinian human rights organisation, Al-Haq has always sought to do more than highlight individual violations of international law. Instead, we work to analyse how a plethora of violations come together to form a picture of the long-term goals that drive such violations.
Unfortunately, we have regularly been confronted with the international community’s lack of political will to meaningfully address the occupation and the violations committed therein. An ever-growing frustration, resulting from the lack of political will to enforce international law, has led Al-Haq to explore alternative means of enforcement by challenging the role played by corporate actors in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) and their potential complicity in violations of international law.
Through this engagement with business involvement, it has become more and more evident that one of the main reasons for the perpetuation of the conflict and the occupation is that of business interests and the profits reaped from the occupation. It is this underlying motivation for continued occupation that has led Al-Haq to conclude that the area of BHR must be developed as a key component of the Palestinian struggle in the years to come.
In lieu of this assessment, Al-Haq attended the 2nd Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that was held in Geneva on December 2-4, 2013. Sharing the stage with organisations from around the world, including Africa and Asia, we realised not only how much we have in common but how much there is to be gained from addressing the Palestinian struggle through a discourse that does not focus solely on political, ideological, or religious differences, but rather on the neutral issue of profit, which all people, regardless of their background, can understand and analyse in an objective manner.
At the Forum, Al-Haq focused on the exploitation of Palestinian natural resources under an umbrella theme of extractive industries, which included several case studies from around the world. Al-Haq’s research has shown that the exploitation of natural resources provides an explanation for the more visible violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that take place in the oPt. Practices such as house demolitions that aim to drive people from their land are interconnected to the construction of settlements and the transfer of Israeli civilians into occupied territory, which serve to secure key sources of water, minerals, and other resources in the oPt.
According to Who Profits, there are at least 33 different companies involved in the exploitation of Palestinian and Syrian natural resources. With permanent sovereignty over natural resources being an essential component of the right to self-determination, the exploitation of these resources must be challenged today in order to ensure full realisation of this right tomorrow. A prime example of such illegal exploitation is that of Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories Ltd., an Israeli cosmetics company with operations on the western shore of the Dead Sea, located in occupied territory. Ahava has subsidiaries in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Al-Haq’s report, entitled Pillage of the Dead Sea: Israel’s Unlawful Exploitation of Natural Resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is one example of our efforts to challenge this exploitation.
The international community, with support from the UN Security Council, has addressed corporate involvement in the extractive industries and its impact on human rights in conflicts such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. Although these developments have not ended the respective conflicts and the violations of human rights committed therein, they do represent a potential avenue for action when political will is sufficiently forthcoming. When it comes to Palestine, however, the international community has yet to acknowledge, much less act on, the human rights impact of the extractive industries and the role of TNCs.
After the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, a Working Group was established to follow up on their implementation. With BHR being a global issue, we do not expect Palestine to dominate the agenda, but by addressing cross-cutting themes such as the extractive industries and business and conflict zones, as well as access to remedy, the Palestinian struggle can be interjected into the broader discourse. This discourse is the ideal platform for highlighting TNC-related challenges that we share with much of the developing world.
With many of these challenges surfacing in post-colonial contexts, Palestinians have much to learn about how the exploitation of natural resources continues after relative independence is achieved, with TNCs playing an essential role in this continued exploitation. Unfortunately, the governing authorities in many post-colonial contexts also play an essential role in allowing TNCs to continue exploiting the natural resources of their states, to the detriment of the rights of their populations.
Today, the Palestinian struggle is framed in varying paradigms, including those of colonisation, apartheid, and occupation. Al-Haq utilises the international legal basis of these paradigms to address the rights of the Palestinian people. When it comes to business interests, profit is the driving force behind violations of international law, regardless of which paradigm is used.
With economic incentives being used as the carrot for furthering the negotiation process, the Palestinian leadership must proceed with caution and not allow the lure of short-term economic reward to undermine long-term economic sovereignty. Herein lies the paradox of achieving economic stability within the context of an underlying conflict; because as long as the occupation continues, the TNCs and Israeli business interests continue to reap the profits of Palestinian oppression. When it comes to non-replenishable natural resources, the urgency of action becomes even more profound, as the profits to be made today may not be available to the Palestinian economy in the decades to come.
Our challenge, as Al-Haq, is to confront those business interests that are detrimental to the realisation of Palestinian rights by making use of the tools that international law provides us. The UN Guiding Principles and the Working Group have supplied us with additional means that we must utilise. By addressing the profit-based incentive structure in place, we can challenge the business-driven perpetuation of the occupation and the violations of international law committed therein. As long as we are able to continue with this work, there will be no more business as usual.
Shawan Jabarin is general director of Al-Haq. He holds a BA in sociology from Birzeit University and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Centre for Human Rights NUI Galway. He is FIDH vice president and commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists. Additional information on Al-Haq’s work on natural resources and business and human rights can be found on its website at www.alhaq.org.