NEW YORK, United States – The UN’s new human rights chief Michelle Bachelet faces a tough decision when she starts work next month: whether to release a controversial list of some 200 businesses that operate in Israeli settlements and risk alienating an already-recalcitrant Trump administration.
Upon becoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 1 September, Bachelet, a former Chilean president, must choose whether to publish the names of companies doing trade linked to unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Palestinian activists say a UN-certified list would help them target offenders in their global boycott and divestment effort. Businesses understood to be operating in Israel’s settlements, which are widely viewed as illegal, include Caterpillar, Airbnb and Motorola.
Earlier this year, the UN delayed publication of the list, sparking fears that it would ultimately be buried amid pressure from Israel and its powerful ally, the United States, which pulled out of the UN’s 47-nation Human Rights Council in June.
Sari Bashi, an Israel expert for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy outfit, told Middle East Eye that the UN’s “missed deadlines” over releasing the list were “unfortunate” and urged Bachelet to “make it a priority” when she takes office.
Josh Ruebner, policy director for The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, described “tremendous pressure” from the Trump administration and Israel on the UN’s human rights apparatus in Geneva to “kill the database”.
“I hope that it sees the light of day, but I’m not optimistic that it will,” Ruebner told MEE.
There are nevertheless hopes that Bachelet, who was approved for the human rights job by the 193-nation UN General Assembly on Friday, will even-handedly uphold the rights of Palestinians and other sidelined groups.
Chile’s first female president has direct experience of abuse: Bachelet and her mother were tortured in a secret prison for two weeks when her father, Gen. Alberto Bachelet, was jailed for treason for opposing a coup in September 1973.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who nominated Bachelet for the job, described her as a “survivor of brutality” who understood the “darkness of dictatorship,” saying she took over “at a time of grave consequence for human rights”.
But she takes the post amid criticism of the incumbent, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a member of Jordan’s royal family, for overusing his perch to bash abuses by Israel, the US, Russia and other global powers.
Bachelet may choose instead to build bridges to the administration of US President Donald Trump and other governments, strike more deals behind closed doors and berate fee-paying UN members less frequently than did Zeid.
Her boss, Guterres, has struggled to keep Trump involved in multilateral diplomacy as the American president was slashing UN funding. Guterres appeared alongside the isolationist-inclined leader for talks on reforming the world body in September 2017.
After the nomination, Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, urged Bachelet to “avoid the failures of the past” and focus on “human rights crises” in Iran, North Korea and Congo that get too little attention in Geneva.
The UN must also “stop its chronic, disproportionate obsession with Israel,” added Haley.
Despite his willingness to censure Washington for locking up child refugees and warning of a Trump-era slide into populist autocracy, Zeid has appeared unwilling to name the firms trading in Israeli settlements as his term draws to a close.
Zeid has repeatedly delayed publication, calling for more time to ensure the database is accurate and complaining of cash and staff shortfalls. This month, in response to a question from MEE, he said he could not confirm when it would be released.
“It’s not something that’s fixed in time. I can’t tell you when, but the process is moving,” Zeid said.
Zeid’s office was instructed to compile the list under a Human Rights Council resolution in March 2016, which called for a database of the companies engaged in activities that enabled, supported or profited from Israeli settlements.
Those activities included supplying bulldozers and other building machinery or materials, surveillance equipment and security services, as well as providing banking and financial services, such as loans for housing.
In January, Zeid’s office said it had identified 206 firms doing business linked to Israeli settlements. Of those, 143 are domiciled in Israel or the settlements, followed by 22 in the US and 19 in other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain.
“Businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements,” a UN report said at that time.
“In doing so, they are contributing to Israel’s confiscation of land, facilitate the transfer of its population into the Occupied Palestinian Territory and are involved in the exploitation of Palestine’s natural resources,” it said.
Businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements,
– UN report
While the UN has not yet named the firms, media outlets have produced speculative reports. In the past, several companies have been accused of profiteering in settlements and being complicit in abuses against Palestinians.
The final list is expected to include Caterpillar, which produces armoured bulldozers and other construction gear, the telecoms firm Motorola and Airbnb, a vacation rental website that lists properties in Efrat, Tekoa and other West Bank settlements.
Other firms that have been cited as likely contenders include the pharmaceutical giant Teva, the national phone company Bezeq, bus company Egged, the national water company Mekorot and two major Israeli banks, Hapoalim and Leumi.
The UN report said that the work in producing the UN database “does not purport to constitute a judicial process of any kind”. UN officials present it as a way to promote good business practices rather than to trigger a global boycott.
But businesses operating in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories have a corporate responsibility to carry out due diligence and consider “whether it is possible to engage in such an environment in a manner that respects human rights,” it said.
Bashi and Ruebner said it could go further.
“Businesses have human rights responsibilities; doing business in Israeli settlements is contrary to those responsibilities and they should stop,” Bashi told MEE. “Information about what companies are doing helps consumers, shareholders and investors encourage these businesses to fulfil their responsibilities.”