UN database of companies operating in Israeli settlements could help prevent human rights abuses

By Laith Abu Zeyad, Amnesty Campaigner on Israel/OPT

When Amnesty International launched a campaign in June 2017 marking 50 years of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, calling on states not to sustain the illegal situation created by Israeli settlements in the West Bank as is required under international law, we knew that achieving its objectives would not be easy.

However, one thing that offered a ray of hope was plans announced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to make public a database listing companies involved in activities in the illegal Israeli settlements. For us, the database was set to be an important tool to ensure transparency around these activities and prompt companies to rethink their operations in the context of a brutal Israeli military occupation and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians.

The UN Human Rights Council, in an innovative move, had charged the High Commissioner for Human Rights with creating a database, to be updated annually, of business enterprises involved in activity that, “directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of the Israeli settlements” and “raise particular human rights violations concerns.”

Specific activities include the supply of construction and surveillance equipment, the supply of surveillance, security, banking and financial services, the exploitation of natural resources and, more generally, the supply of services and utilities supporting the maintenance and existence of settlements.

The purpose of the UN database is quite simple: it is meant to help businesses, and the states in which they are based, take steps to ensure they are not committing or contributing to gross human rights abuses of Palestinians
Laith Abu Zeyad, Amnesty International

The purpose of the UN database is quite simple: it is meant to help businesses, and the states in which they are based, take steps to ensure they are not committing or contributing to gross human rights abuses of Palestinians.

Despite being initially due to be finalized by March 2017, the publication of the database has been delayed repeatedly by the OHCHR, initially under former High Commissioner Zeid al-Hussein and now under his successor Michele Bachelet. The exact timing of the database’s release has yet to be announced.

It has become increasingly clear that the delay is in part because certain states are bringing extensive political pressure to bear, not just to put off the database’s release, but to stop it being made public at all. In other words, some powerful states in the UN are lobbying the High Commissioner to simply ignore the mandate she has been given by the Council, or to interpret the mandate in a way that strains all credibility: either by not mentioning companies’ names or not releasing the database at all.

For years, Amnesty International and other international, Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations have documented how Israel’s policy of developing, expanding and guarding its settlements is inherently discriminatory and results in a wide range of human rights violations affecting every aspect of Palestinians’ lives.

In our latest report on this issue, published in January 2019, we documented the involvement of leading online tourism companies in illegal Israeli settlements. We argued that any business activity in or with settlements unavoidably contributes to sustaining an illegal situation and that companies engaged in these activities directly or indirectly contribute to, and profit from, the maintenance, development and expansion of settlements, which amount to war crimes under international criminal law.

The report welcomed an announcement by Airbnb last year that it would remove all listings in settlements in the occupied West Bank excluding East Jerusalem, but, disappointingly, the company  reversed its decision in April 2019.

Even more disturbingly, the current Israeli government is more emboldened than ever to pursue expansion of settlements. In April 2019, for the first time ever, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly called for official annexation of parts of the West Bank. He repeated this call in September 2019.

All of this is occurring against the backdrop of a clear international consensus: Israeli settlements are illegal and have devastating consequences for the human rights of Palestinians. A UN Security Council resolution adopted in December 2016 stated that Israel’s settlement activity constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law and has “no legal validity”. It demanded that Israel stop such activity and fulfil its obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

For decades, official condemnation and quiet diplomacy have failed to bring about necessary change. Now more than ever is the time for concrete action. States must use the next Human Rights Council session on Palestine to demand the release of the database.
Laith Abu Zeyad, Amnesty International

However, for decades, official condemnation and quiet diplomacy have failed to bring about necessary change. Now more than ever is the time for concrete action. States must use the next Human Rights Council session on Palestine to demand the release of the database.

The UN has the potential to change the status quo in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The OHCHR should fulfil the mandate given to it by the UN Human Rights Council by compiling, publishing and regularly updating a database of businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements. We along with 100 other organizations, expressed the hope that these important steps would be undertaken urgently in an open letter addressed to High Commissioner Michele Bachelet in August.

UN member states can play their part by insisting that the High Commissioner should comply with the Human Rights Council’s mandate without further delay. This will bring much needed transparency to business activities in Israeli settlements, facilitate states’ compliance with international law and expedite companies’ progress towards respecting human rights.