Israeli settlements: a no-go for business?

The United Nations Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution calling on States to warn companies of the risks arising from doing business in the Israeli settlements in Palestine. The unlawfulness of these settlements has long been recognised, with the International Court of Justice stating in 2004 that Israeli settlements “have been established in breach of international law”. Greater attention is now being paid to the implications for business who may operate in or contribute to the establishment of settlements. Over the past year, various European banks and pension funds have divested from Israeli banks because of their involvement in the financing of settlement activity. It is in this context that the Human Rights Council made the following request to States:

To provide information to individuals and businesses on the financial, reputational and legal risks, as well as the possible abuses of the rights of individuals, of getting involved in settlement-related activities, including economic and financial activities, the provision of services in settlements and the purchasing of property

Although apparently a watered down version of an earlier proposed resolution, this is an important development, both from the perspective of addressing violations of the rights of Palestinians, as well as the increasing integration of business and human rights into the work of the United Nations. Related to this, the Council also asked the other United Nations human rights bodies to take measures to ensure the implementation of the Guiding Principles on business and human rights. The Council’s resolution states that these provide “a global standard for upholding human rights in relation to business activities that are connected with Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”.

Ireland is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and voted in favour of the resolution. In total, 46 members voted for the resolution and only one against (the United States). With regard to what we might expect from Ireland in follow up to this resolution, a November 2013 note from the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the Human Rights Council addressed Ireland’s approach to business and human rights and to Irish business activity connected with the settlements:

Ireland was considering the formulation of a national plan of action for the implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It was not aware of any Irish businesses engaged in activities in Israeli settlements. It stated that the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland carried a warning to persons considering investing in or buying property in the settlements with regard to their legal status.

There is indeed a warning under the ‘travel advice’ section of the Department’s website, but that is hardly sufficient to put businesses on notice of the legal and reputational risks they might face. The United Kingdom’s Department of Trade and Investment has issued much clearer advice to British companies regarding economic and financial activities in the Israeli settlements, and has stated that it does not “encourage or offer support to such activity”.

A particularly interesting case in this context is that of Cement Roadstone Holdings, an Irish company with holdings that include an Israeli cement company which has provided materials seemingly used for the construction of settlements. A complaint to the OECD national contact point by the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign against CRH remains pending, despite having been submitted almost three years ago.

 

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