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NGOs push for Montréal-based firm to be added to UN database of businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements

WSP Global has been contracted to extend the Jerusalem Light Rail system, contributing to the maintenance of illegal settlements

Middle EastHuman Rights

An Israeli police officer walks next to a Jerusalem light rail car, Jerusalem. Photo courtesy WhoProfits.org.

On September 15, Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq and the Canadian not-for-profit group Just Peace Advocates submitted a report to the recently appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, calling for Montréal-based WSP Global Inc. (WSP) to be included in a UN database of businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements.

WSP is an engineering professional services firm that has been contracted to plan, design, maintain, and extend the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) system, an Israeli public tramway that contributes to the maintenance of illegal Israeli settlements in occupied and annexed East Jerusalem.

The report outlines that WSP facilitates the practice of forcible transfer of settlers into Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) through its construction and servicing of the JLR, while deepening the physical, social and economic integration of the settlements. The report also indicates that through its active maintenance of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, WSP is involved in gross and systematic violations of fundamental human rights against the protected Palestinian population.

The database was released on February 12, 2020 as part of the annual report of the UN high commissioner for human rights and followed an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate the implications of Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the OPT, including East Jerusalem.

There are a total of 112 companies included on the UN list. Information released in the lead-up to the publication of the database indicated that it was expected two Canadian companies would be listed. However, once it launched, neither of them appeared.

Canadian public pension investment in WSP

WSP’s major shareholder is the Canadian Public Pension Investment Board (CPPIB). In 2021, WSP made up more than one-half of the CPPIB’s Canadian portfolio value. This is perhaps not surprising as nearly seven percent of the CPPIB’s total investment supports companies involved in Israel’s illegal settlement industry and other forms of state violence.

Based on CPPIB’s March 31, 2020 annual listing of equity holdings, the Board is invested in eight companies that are listed in the UN database. There are an additional 27 companies that CPPIB is invested in that have been deemed by leading peace and social justice agency American Friends Service Committee to have substantial, ongoing, and intentional complicity in severe violations of human rights and international law related to occupied Palestine and the Syrian Golan.

The September 15 submission to the UN was endorsed by 105 international organizations, including close to 40 from Canada. In addition, esteemed individuals, such as former Canadian Member of Parliament Libby Davies, former UN Special Rapporteurs Michael Lynk, John Dugard, and Richard Falk, activist and musician Roger Waters, Noam Chomsky, and Canadian author Yann Martel, along with academics, lawyers, faith leaders and others endorsed the submission.

The joint report submitted by Al-Haq and Just Peace Advocates calls on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to:

  1. Update the UN database annually and uphold Human Rights Council resolution 31/36 (2016) in its entirety, listing all business enterprises engaged in certain Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in consultation with the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.
  2. List WSP in the upcoming update and report of the UN database on the grounds that its activities raise human rights concerns that are explicitly addressed by the UN database.
  3. Continue to exert the necessary efforts to ensure transparency and promote accountability for business activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to counter the pervasive impunity stemming from corporate-related violations and grave breaches of international law in such contexts.

Dr. Susan Power, Al-Haq’s head of legal research and advocacy, explained that “By operating rail services connecting settlements in the OPT, on land appropriated from the occupied Palestinian population, WSP is complicit in aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes, and agents for the company may be held individually criminally liable.”

The rail project

In 2019, the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team, the Israeli public entity managing public transport in Jerusalem, in conjunction with the Israeli Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli Ministry of Transport, National Infrastructure and Road Safety, awarded a €1.8 billion contract for the expansion of Israel’s JLR system to TransJerusalem J-Net Ltd., a consortium formed by Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), a Spanish manufacturer of railway vehicles, and the Israeli construction company Shapir (which is listed in the UN database).

In December 2020, 31 prominent human rights organizations, networks and trade unions from Palestine and Europe submitted a report to the OHCHR in Geneva demanding that CAF be included in the UN database for its involvement in the JLR project.

The appropriation of Palestinian land and destruction of Palestinian property executed for the construction and maintenance of the JLR violates Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In accordance with international law and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, WSP, as a corporation operating in a conflict-affected area, must comply with international humanitarian law and human rights law, by means of establishing policies that seek to prevent human rights abuses during its operations and trade. Moreover, WSP is expected to act with enhanced due diligence when conducting business at home and abroad.

Canada is the primary duty bearer in ensuring that WSP is held to account for its maintenance of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise, and must fulfill its obligations to facilitate measures and remedies for the compensation of the affected Palestinian communities, whose rights to movement, property, livelihood, and family have been severely violated due to its activities.

Considering WSP’s code of ethics stating its commitment to respect, support and safeguard human rights, as well as its status as an active participant of the UN Global Compact, its complicity with Israel’s extensive destruction and appropriation of Palestinian property, through the construction of the JLR, is of grave concern. WSP must cease its activity in the OPT, in accordance with its internal policies and values, and international law.

The database remains a powerful tool for assuring transparency of business enterprises that are involved in, and profit from, Israel’s apartheid regime. Yet, without annual and comprehensive updates to the database, corporations, such as WSP, remain unlisted. It is essential that the Human Rights Council fulfils the duty of its mandate to resolution 31/36 (2016) and annually update the database to ensure it remains an effective mechanism for accountability and transparency.

The OHCHR has indicated they have received the submission and will examine it carefully.

Take a minute to send a letter to the CPPIB, copying the Minister of Finance, to demand that Canadian pensions should divest from investments supporting Israeli war crimes.

Karen Rodman is the director of Just Peace Advocates, an international human rights organization based in Canada, and a retired senior manager with more than 30 years with the Ontario Public Service.

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