Adri Nieuwhof, The Electronic Intifada, 13 July 2009
HeidelbergCement, one of the world's largest manufacturers of building materials, has become the target of legal action in Israel because of its activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The company's subsidiary, Hanson Israel, manufactures ready-made cement, aggregates and asphalt for Israel's construction industry and operates a quarry in the occupied West Bank.
In March, the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din filed a petition with the Israeli high court demanding a halt to illegal mining activity in West Bank quarries, including Hanson Israel's Nahal Raba quarry. Attorneys representing Yesh Din called upon the court to put an end to this "clearly illegal activity, which constitutes blunt and ugly colonial exploitation of land we [Israel] had forcefully seized."
Yesh Din's attorneys argued that the practice is reminiscent of occupation patterns in ancient times when there were no laws of war and the victor could plunder the occupied territory, enslave its economy and citizens, and transfer the natural resources of the vanquished to its own land. In May, Israel ordered a freeze on the expansion of Israeli-run stone and gravel quarries in the occupied West Bank. The Ministry of Justice asked the court to delay a hearing for six months to study the legal position of the quarries. In addition to its mining activity at Nahal Raba, the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace reported on the website Who Profits from the Occupation? that Hanson owns two concrete plants in the settlements of Modiin Illit and Atarot, and an asphalt plant south of the Elqana settlement.
Five years ago, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reaffirmed in its authoritative ruling the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people, that Israel is the occupying power in the Palestinian territories, and the illegality of settlement construction, which includes the construction of industrial sites in the settlements.
Transnational corporations like HeidelbergCement are required by international law to comply with international rules governing corporate responsibility with respect to human rights.
In 2003, the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights defined norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights. The norms are framed within the general obligation that "States have the primary responsibility to promote, secure the fulfillment of, respect, ensure respect of and protect human rights recognized in international as well as national law, including ensuring that transnational corporations and other business enterprises respect human rights."
"Transnational corporations and other business enterprises," the UN norms state, also specifically "have the obligation to promote, secure the fulfillment of, respect, ensure respect of and protect human rights recognized in international as well as national law, including the rights and interests of indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups."
Hanson Israel's concrete and asphalt plants in the OPT -- just like the Israeli settlements -- are contrary to international law. Israel's mining of Palestinian natural resources, mainly for the Israeli market, also violates international law. Through Hanson Israel's operations in the occupied West Bank, HeidelbergCement is involved in Israel's violations of international law and the company acts against the rights and interest of the indigenous Palestinian people.
The UN Norms for transnational corporations are an authoritative guide to corporate social responsibility. Institutional investors and asset managers are increasingly insisting on corporate social responsibility as a requirement for their continued investment. As states fail to meet their obligations to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law, economic pressure can be used as a tool to hold companies who render aid or assistance to Israel's violations of international law to account.
In early 2008, for example, the Dutch ASN Bank divested from the Irish construction firm Cement Roadstone Holding (CRH), a competitor of HeidelbergCement. CRH owns 25 percent of the Israeli Mashav Group, the holding company for Nesher Cement. According to the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, Nesher provided cement for Israel's wall, checkpoints and illegal settlements in the OPT. Activists in Ireland have demanded that CRH end all of its activities that facilitate the Israeli occupation.
The growing global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel has brought major investor, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, under pressure to distance itself from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In May, 20 Israeli organizations sent a letter to the pension fund calling for divestment from 15 companies, including HeidelbergCement.
Following a sustained campaign calling for an end of French transportation giant Veolia's complicity with Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, it was reported last month that the corporation planned to abandon its involvement in a light rail project in Jerusalem that would effectively normalize the illegal situation of Israel's settlements.
Although Veolia's headquarters in Paris has remained silent, the company's communications manager in Sweden, Gunhild Saumllvinn, told the Swedish news agency TT on 14 June that heavy criticism of Veolia's participation in the project and the loss of several major contracts is "probably is one of the reasons behind the decision" to withdraw involvement.
It seems that like Veolia, HeidelbergCement is attempting to sell off its Israeli subsidiary. The Israeli business magazine Globes reported in May that the Mashav Group and Engelinvest Group have shown interest in acquiring Hanson Israel. If Mashav buys Hanson, however, Irish firm CRH can expect to be greeted with increased pressure to divest from the Mashav Group, likely achieving a similar end as the Veolia divestment campaign.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.