The 36th Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Geneva) – Ongoing illegal Israeli settlement activity highlights the urgency of the publication of a United Nations database of businesses that have enabled or profited from settlements, Human Rights Watch said today.

The database will publicly identify businesses that contribute to rights abuses by operating in or with settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In so doing, it will build pressure on businesses to stop doing business in and with settlements in order to meet their human rights responsibilities and for countries to respond to the Security Council’s call in its Resolution 2334 to distinguish between Israeli territory and settlements in their dealings. In the year since the resolution passed with a 14-0 vote and a US abstention, Israeli authorities have accelerated settlement plans, passed a law legalizing the confiscation of private Palestinian land, and declared their intent to maintain settlements forever.

“Israel’s brazen disregard of the 2016 Security Council resolution, passed without opposition, reaffirming the illegality of settlements makes it all the more urgent for corporations to avoid entanglement in rights abuses inherent in settlement activity,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch. “The database can contribute toward establishing an authoritative list of corporations currently engaged in such activity.”

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been compiling the database after the UN Human Rights Council voted in March 2016 to establish it in March 2017. The Human Rights Council accepted the high commissioner’s request to defer its publication “for one time only” until “no later than the end of December 2017.”

Settlements violate the laws of occupation. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring its citizens into the territory it occupies and from transferring or displacing the population of an occupied territory within or outside the territory. Settlements also contribute to Israel’s two-tiered discriminatory system in the occupied West Bank, restricting and stunting Palestinian development while subsidizing and supporting Israeli settlements built on land unlawfully seized from Palestinians.

Companies have a responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) to conduct due diligence and mitigate any harmful human rights impact of their activities. Business activity in settlements, by making it possible for Israel to build and sustain the settlements, contributes to serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law. Because abuses are inherent to the settlement enterprise, businesses do not have the ability to alleviate or mitigate them. Merely doing business with the settlements amounts to complicity in them.

Therefore, businesses have a responsibility to cease doing business in or with Israeli settlements, Human Rights Watch said. Prohibited conduct would include locating or carrying out activities inside settlements; financing, administering, or otherwise supporting settlements or settlement-related activities and infrastructure; and contracting to purchase settlement-manufactured goods or produce.

Countries also have obligations with regard to businesses in their territory or under their jurisdiction. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires states parties to ensure respect for the convention, barring them from providing aid or assistance to unlawful activities in occupied territories. The UN Guiding Principles call on countries to develop guidelines to ensure that businesses operating in conflict-affected areas, including in situations of military occupation such as the occupied Palestinian territories, respect human rights.

In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 31/36, which called for the Office of the High Commissioner to “produce a database of all business enterprises” that “directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of the settlements.” It further called on states to take “appropriate measures to help to ensure that businesses domiciled in their territory and/or under their jurisdiction, including those owned or controlled by them, refrain from committing or contributing to gross human rights abuses of Palestinians.”

The resolution called for the report to be submitted during the March 2017 session of the UN Human Rights Council. In February, the Human Rights Council accepted High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid al-Hussein’s recommendation to defer the report “for one time only” and submit it “as soon as possible, but no later than the end of December 2017.”

By evaluating the activities of businesses in Israeli settlements, the database, which will carry the imprimatur of the UN, will signal to businesses the abuses inherent in settlement activities and, in so doing, help companies avoid inadvertently doing business in or with settlement and build pressure on them to stop these activities to ensure compliance with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. This information will also provide states with the information needed to carry out measures to prevent and address corporate involvement in rights abuses.

The Human Rights Council resolution requests that the database be updated annually to reflect business practices as they evolve.

In November 2016, Human Rights Watch wrote to the high commissioner’s office with recommendations for the kinds of business activities and institutions to be included in the database. Earlier in November, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and a coalition of other groups working on corporate social responsibility wrote to the high commissioner’s office calling for “prompt release of the database.”

“Settlement businesses unavoidably contribute to Israeli policies that dispossess and harshly discriminate against Palestinians, while profiting from Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and other resources,” Whitson said. “The database will build pressure on businesses to cease carrying out these activities and comply with their human rights responsibilities.”