The UN Settlements Database is Out. Now What?

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Following civil society organisations’ tireless efforts in Palestine and around the world, the UN Office of the High Commissioner fulfilled the mandate entrusted to it by the Human Rights Council in 2016 by recently publishing a list of 112 companies associated with Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).

Though it is long overdue and not comprehensive, the database is an important step in providing transparency around business activities linked to Israeli settlements that constitute a war crime under international law. The database also provides a tangible tool toward advancing accountability in the OPT, though it is not the first of its kind in conflict-affected settings. In August 2019, for example, the report of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar issued a list of local and foreign companies linked to Myanmar’s military human rights violations.

Now that the database is released, immediate steps must be taken to work toward ending corporate contribution to developing, consolidating, and maintaining Israel’s settlement enterprise, as well as corporate profiting from this enterprise through the unlawful confiscation and exploitation of Palestinian land and natural resources. Official Palestinian channels, UN member states, and civil society can go about this in a number of ways.

Relevant Palestinian official representations, namely at the United Nations in Geneva, should build on the release of the database in the current Human Rights Council session. This can be done by reaffirming the mandate surrounding the database by including it in relevant resolutions at the Council.

In addition, the state of Palestine should continue to be vocal about the matter and provide member states, notably those listed on the database, with specific recommendations to encourage their businesses to divest and terminate activities and relationships associated with Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.

Moreover, member states of the Human Rights Council should welcome the release of the database and encourage companies to comply with their responsibilities under international law and act as a deterrent against engaging with Israel’s settlements. In line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, states are further required to strengthen their domestic regulatory frameworks to ensure that their businesses carry out enhanced human rights due diligence.

In particular, states listed in the database should acknowledge that companies domiciled within their jurisdiction are contributing to an illegal situation and to human rights violations against Palestinians, and act accordingly in line with their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. The United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Luxembourg, and Thailand – listed in the published UN database as home States to businesses affiliated with Israeli settlements – are High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, meaning that they have a responsibility to respect international humanitarian law in the OPT, including in regard to the activities of businesses domiciled within their jurisdiction operating there.

If the businesses fail to comply with their obligations under international law, these states should consider denying them access to public support and services. The states should also support and engage with other mechanisms geared toward corporate accountability globally, including the legally binding instrument on business and human rights, an international instrument currently being developed that seeks to regulate the activities of multinational corporations and other business enterprises under international law.

Furthermore, considering that the database largely lists Israeli companies, which fall within the jurisdiction of an occupying power that has long acted with impunity and continues to unabatedly de facto annex large parts of Palestinian territory, the international community must immediately activate and implement their obligations as third party states, including by banning products, services, and relationships originating from and linked to the settlements.

It is also important that the collective work to pursue corporate accountability continues. It is crucial, for instance, that UN member states and civil society ensure that the database remains a living mechanism for states, businesses, and civil society. Notably, the Human Rights Council’s mandate stipulating the establishment of the database explicitly requires its annual update. While the UN High Commissioner recommended that the update be undertaken by “a group of independent experts, with a time-bound mandate, to report directly to the [Human Rights] Council,” the annual update should remain within the framework of the OHCHR and continue as long as corporate involvement in and profiteering from settlement activities persists.

The OHCHR was able to develop the methodology around the database and produce it, so it remains unclear why it would now seek to absolve itself from continuing to fulfil its mandate in its entirety. Irrespective, civil society organizations should continue to support the OHCHR in its mandate to update the database, as well as strengthen their campaigns with the listed companies (and others) involved in settlements to remind them of their relevant responsibilities under international law.

Ultimately such a database does not only serve to address and prevent the prolonged injustices in the OPT, but constitutes a vital contribution to the development of the international framework toward ending corporate-related human rights abuses and corporate impunity around the world.

Maha Abdallah, Nada Awad

Source: Cambridge core