In March 2008, Richard Falk was appointed UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories, currently under Israeli occupation.
He is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and visiting distinguished professor in global and international studies at the University of California. He writes eloquently about the importance of bearing witness with accuracy and an independence of mind, regardless of any prevailing consensus.
Last month, Falk provoked the wrath of US politicians and pro-Israeli groups by recommending a boycott of companies that help to perpetuate Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land, and suggested they might even face criminal and civil proceedings. He was accused of anti-semitism.
There are no more incendiary political issues than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s not the only battle where multinationals have ventured but, given its worldwide significance, it’s worth just looking at the facts on the ground in this case.
Annexation and separation
Since Israel’s occupation began in 1967, it has imprisoned more than 730,000 Palestinian men, women and children, most in Israel itself, breaking the Fourth Geneva Convention and article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Some are held in administrative detention, without charge or trial.
These prisoners are drawn from a population reduced to the status of refugees. Palestinians face severe restrictions on movement and Israel continues to appropriate and colonise their land for settlements in contravention of international law.
In addition to East Jerusalem and the land effectively annexed by the ‘Separation Wall’, Israel has declared its intention to also annex the Jordan Valley, which comprises one third of the entire West Bank. Gaza, meanwhile, is under siege. Given that this conflict is essentially one about land, it’s hard to see how these actions could do anything but ferment ambitions of war.
One of the companies Falk named was security group G4S. According to Lisa Nandy, the UK MP who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Corporate Responsibility, G4S signed a contract with the Israeli Prison Authority in 2007 to provide services to a number of prisons and detention facilities, some of which house prisoners transferred from the West Bank. It also installed a central command room in Ofer Prison in the West Bank, which houses a unit where prisoners are tried under military law.
For its part, G4S has said it will disengage from Israel as soon as its contract allows, but getting there in the first place is a major ethical issue that goes to the heart of what business is for.
Business people might not be politicians, but business is political and taking sides in such an arena could easily expose a company to the damaging attentions of highly-motivated groups. Whether they’ll ever have enough answers to silence these increasingly web-savvy critics is doubtful, indeed.
• Originally published in Ethical Performance in November 2012