Creating people's geographies
By Adri Nieuwhof | ei | 26 November 2006
This week, ASN Bank, a Dutch bank based in The Hague,1 announced that it would end its relationship with Veolia Transport, and all companies that benefit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Since it first announced its intentions to become involved in an Israeli project to build a light rail / tramline system, to be constructed in occupied East Jerusalem, Veolia Transport, a French multi-national corporation, faced a lot of criticism from all over the world. The tramline aims to connect the illegally-constructed settlements in East Jerusalem with towns and cities in Israel.2
ASN Bank is rooted in ethical principles, which it explains as follows:
“As an ethical bank, ASN Bank does not only apply financial criteria when selecting its investments, but also takes account of environmental and social criteria; the latter include Human Rights criteria. The UN resolutions are an important guide for ASN Bank in the practical interpretation of these Human Rights criteria.”3
The Bank once refused to deal with companies that were linked in any way with apartheid South Africa. To encourage ASN Bank to withdraw its money from Veolia, concerned individuals with an account at ASN Bank joined forces with Dutch, Palestinian, Israeli and international organisations.
This article explains how the successful action came about.
First contact in May
On 15 May 2006, ASN Bank received a formal request to withdraw their money from Veolia Environment. The request came from a few individuals who teamed up and appealed to the ethics of the bank and its anti-apartheid history.
At the end of May, the bank replied that it would reconsider its relationship with Veolia on the basis of a thorough analysis. Relevant information about the occupation and why the development of a light rail system / tramline in East Jerusalem was unlawful were sent to the director of the bank by the core group of individuals.
In July, the ASN Bank director was reminded of the importance of a timely answer. However, he stressed the need for thorough research and asked for patience. This was difficult for the core group to accept, because at that time the Israeli military operations in Gaza and in South Lebanon had reached a level of violence not seen in a decade. There was a strong sense of urgency, due to the increasing pace with which Israel was creating facts on the ground in its construction of the wall, the settlements and the tramline. These concerns were conveyed on several occasions.
Looking for partners
While the case of Veolia was very clear in terms of ethical and legal arguments, it did not lead to a quick change in the policy of ASN Bank. Consequently, the pressure on ASN Bank was increased and new partners were identified. Two organisations were invited to join the core group, the Interchurch Organisation for Development Co-operation (ICCO) a major Dutch non-governmental donor organisation and the Amsterdam-based NGO A Different Jewish Voice (EAJG).
|The route of the tramway in Jerusalem.|
EAJG had already taken steps to lobby Veolia to withdraw from the tramline project by writing letters to the French Ambassador and to the Dutch Foreign Minister. ICCO had a long-standing relationship with ASN Bank and was active in the Middle East for many years. Other Dutch organisations were also informed about the action. It became clear that several organisations were prepared – if necessary – to become active in a bigger campaign for the ASN Bank’s withdrawal from Veolia.
Research into Veolia
To gain a deeper understanding of Veolia’s partnership in the Israeli project for the tramline in East Jerusalem, research was undertaken into the background of the company.
This research served multiple purposes. It helped the core group build its argument for the ASN Bank to divest, it served as a concrete input to the ASN Bank’s own assessment of Veolia, and it inspired other activists to continue their campaigns for Veolia’s withdrawal from the tramline project. Reliable sources were cited, including Public Citizen, a non-profit organisation founded by Ralph Nader, which had criticised Veolia for its ‘track record of corruption, broken promises, environmental degradation, price-gouging, obfuscation, misdirection and secrecy’. On the basis of the research, two articles were published in June and September 2006.4
|Veolia letter (PDF), 22 May 2006|
|PLO NAD letter (PDF), 11 June 2006|
In a letter to the Dutch activists dated 22 May 2006, Veolia claimed they were ignorant of the unlawfulness of constructing the tramline, even though Amnesty International in France had already made this issue very clear in a public statement of 1 March 2006.5
Only recently, the core group learned that the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and French President Jacques Chirac discussed Veolia’s partnership in the summer of 2005. At that time, the French government had shares in Veolia Corporation. In November last year, a delegation of the Palestinian Authority met Ministers and Members of Parliament in France and the Netherlands concerning the actions of Veolia. It is now clear that the Palestinian Authority had long registered its objections to the tramline project in East Jerusalem.
Media attention and debates in parliament
In September 2006, ASN Bank requested a meeting between the Bank and the core group. Early November was offered as the first opportunity that ASN Bank’s representatives would be available. The core group was unhappy about the delay, but did not see any other constructive option than to agree.
In the meantime, United Civilians for Peace, a coalition of six Dutch organisations active in the areas of peace, human rights and development, finalised a research on the links between Dutch companies and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
At the time the research was being undertaken, questions were raised in the Dutch Parliament about Riwal, a Dutch company involved in the illegal construction of the wall in occupied Palestinian territory. Parliamentarians called for the intervention of the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. When the complete ‘Profundo’ report6 was published it got a lot of media attention, and led to further debate in the Dutch Parliament. These events were helpful in building pressure on ASN Bank to withdraw its investments in Veolia.
The meeting with ASN Bank
To further convince ASN Bank that it had no other option than to change its policy towards Veolia, the core group mobilised additional support for the November meeting with the Bank. Letters calling on ASN Bank to withdraw its investments in Veolia or condemning Veolia’s construction of the tramline were written by Dutch, Israeli, Palestinian and various international organisations, and by prominent individuals, including an internationally respected human rights and international law expert, as well as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
The core group and a representative of the Stop the Wall campaign participated in the meeting with ASN Bank in November. The Bank’s directors informed the core group that they had decided to stick to their ethics and principles and therefore would end their relation with Veolia. ASN Bank did not want to have any relationship with a company that benefited from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In this regard, it is expected that ASN Bank will also end its relationship with the Irish company Cement Roadstone Holdings Plc (CRH). CRH is co-owner of the Israeli Mashav Group, the main provider of cement in the illegal construction of the wall in the West Bank. CRH also owns 129 Gamma and Karwei home improvement centres in the Netherlands.
ASN Bank’s message to Veolia
In its correspondence with Veolia ASN Bank explained the reasons for ending the relationship with Veolia:
“This combined information convinced ASN Bank that Veolia’s involvement does pose a problem for ASN Bank in applying the banks’ social criteria on Human Rights. We believe that Veolia’s involvement in the light rail project is not in line with the UN’s demand to stop all support for Israel’s settlement activities, and is therefore not in line with ASN Banks’ social criteria. Due to the direct nature of Veolia’s involvement (through a 5% stake in the consortium and as future operator), we are of the opinion that Veolia’s activities in Jerusalem are in conflict with UN Resolutions. Therefore, on this current information Veolia will be removed from our investment universe.”7
Every kilometer starts with a single step
The case of ASN Bank shows that a call for boycott and divestment can be successful. Consumers put their money in banks and they have the power to influence their policies. They vote with their money and in some cases they can appeal to a bank’s ethical standards. It is expected that more Dutch investment and pensions funds will withdraw their money from Veolia and other companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory or through their complicity in human rights violations. Such campaigns will have an impact in supporting the continuing struggle of the Palestinian people to claim their freedom and equal rights.
One of the core group’s Palestinian contacts responded as follows:
“Many thanks for your message; it is very encouraging. This thing is a small light in the very dark tunnel we are currently in. Today’s shocking and disgusting crime committed against civilians in Beit Hanoun (Gaza) and the shameless justification it was given by the Israeli leaders prove how urgent is the need for a vibrant and an alive world conscience.”
ASN Bank is the first bank to end relations with companies that benefit from the occupation. A significant step has been taken. Now it is up to us to convince other banks and pension funds to do the same. For example, the Dutch bank ABN AMRO has investments in Caterpillar, the manufacturer of D9 bulldozers that are retro-fitted with armour and machine guns and used by the Israeli army for the demolition of numerous Palestinian houses in acts of collective punishment, as well as for building the separation wall. So who is next?
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights activist who, in the eighties, was involved numerous BDS projects for the Holland Committee on Southern Africa (KZA).
 ASN Bank
 Letter to Veolia from ASN Bank (20 November 2006)
 Amnesty International (France)
 Research: Dozens of Dutch companies support or facilitate Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories, United Civilians for Peace (16 November 2006)
 Letter to Veolia from ASN Bank (20 November 2006)