Veolia, a publicly owned French company that provides environmental services in the fields of water, waste management, energy and transportation, has long been the target of one of the most successful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns for its violation of Palestinian human rights. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Veolia has facilitated the Israeli occupation by building and operating a tram-line which links Jerusalem with illegal settlements in the West Bank, by dumping waste from Israel and illegal settlements on Palestinian land at the Tovlan landfill, and by providing wastewater treatment to several illegal settlement, including Modi’in Illit. Due to Veolia’s violation of International Law, Palestinian human rights, and Veolia’s own mission, other countries, municipalities, and pension funds are boycotting Veolia and holding it accountable for its actions.
Oversized signs heralding Veolia throughout Khobar, however, suggest that no such boycott exists in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the company does billions of dollars worth of business there. Veolia Water Solutions and Technologies (VWS) has signed lucrative contracts with the Saudi government in the past few years, including a deal with the Power and Water Utility Company for Jubail and Yanbu (Marafiq) for the building of one of the world’s largest desalination plants in 2007, and a contract with the Saudi Ministry of Water and Electricity for water production and distribution and wastewater collection in Riyadh in 2008. While the Saudi government has often denounced the violation of Palestinian rights when politically beneficial, it has repeatedly rewarded a company complicit in those violations with multimillion dollar contracts.
Veolia in Saudi Arabia
Focusing on wastewater management and desalination, Veolia Environment has been operating and generating huge profits in Saudi Arabia for a number of years through its subsidiary Veolia Water Solutions and Technologies Saudi-Industries Ltd. This company, with offices in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Khobar, also operates through another subsidiary, Sidem Saudi Ltd., located in Jeddah, Khobar, and Jubail, that specializes in designing and building large desalination plants for industrial and municipal needs.
In 2007, Veolia Water Solutions and Technologies (VWS) signed a $945 million contract with the Power and Water Utility Company for Jubail and Yanbu (Marafiq) for the construction of an Independent Water and Power Production Project, including one of the world’s largest desalination plants. Scheduled for completion in 2009, it now provides 800,000 m3/day of desalinated water to Jubail Industrial City and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. In addition to the Marafiq deal, VWS have signed sixty-two desalination-related deals in Saudi Arabia since 2007.
A number of contracts followed. In 2008, the company signed another deal with the National Water Company, a division of the Saudi Ministry of Water and Electricity, for water production and distribution and wastewater collection serving 4.5 million inhabitants. The contract is expected to create cumulative revenue of forty million pounds (sixty million dollars) for Veolia. Most recently, in December 2011, Veolia signed an agreement with King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) to set up research facilities at the high-tech Dhahran Techno-Valley.
Veolia’s Human Right Abuses and Violations of International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
Veolia, directly and through its Israeli subsidiaries, has been operating within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in different capacities and in a belligerent violation of International Law. Veolia actions are a direct violation of International Law, principally Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that states: “[t]he Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,” and UN Resolution 63/201 of 28 January 2009 that called “upon Israel, the occupying Power, to cease the dumping of all kinds of waste materials in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” These actions also represent a very selective and discriminatory application of Veolia’s own objective and mission to “mitigate the environmental impact of rising waste production,” and “help to improve quality of life,” since the environmental, and thus, living, conditions for Palestinians in occupied Palestine have actively been worsened by the company’s practices. Veolia is deeply entrenched in Israel’s settler colonial project being carried out in the West Bank. Divided by sector, Veolia’s involvement includes:
As Adri Nieuwhof has reported, Veolia Water Israel’s Ayalon Sewage Treatment Plant supplies wastewater treatment to several exclusively non-Palestinian communities, including Modi’in Illit. The illegal Modi’in Illit settlement, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the occupied West Bank, plays a key geographic and demographic role in the expansion of Israeli “facts on the ground.”
Veolia Environmental Services is involved in dumping Israeli waste at the company’s site in Tovlan in the occupied Jordan Valley. This waste includes municipal solid waste, construction waste, sterilized medical waste and electronic waste.
The waste from twenty-one different settlements and from within Israel proper is buried in the Tovlan landfill and the health and environmental impact of the waste has led to the people of nearby villages to desert their homes. The population of Abu Ajai, for instance, has dwindled from thousands in 1999 to only two hundred in 2011. While Palestinians in nearby villages are deprived of electricity, the electricity generated by the processing of waste in this hazardous landfill is supplied only to neighboring Jewish-only settlements. Ironically, the people working in this hazardous landfill are only Palestinians, who receive less than half the minimum wage given to Israeli workers.
Tovlan landfill is built on stolen Palestinian land. The landfill serves the needs of the Israeli population. Under international law, Israel is prohibited from using occupied land for the sole benefit of its own civilian population. In Resolution 63/201 of 28 January 2009, the UN General Assembly explicitly addressed the issue. It called:
upon Israel, the occupying Power, to cease the dumping of all kinds of waste materials in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan, which gravely threaten their natural resources, namely water and land resources, and pose an environmental hazard and health threat to the civilian populations.
Meanwhile, Veolia digs its heels deeper into the Israeli occupation by offering services to the Israeli army. In mid-August of this year, according to the Who Profits newsletter, Veolia subsidiary YRAV Sherutei Noy 1985 won a contract for waste collection services from the Israeli army bases in the Jordan Valley.
Veolia Transportation received a good deal of media coverage in the recent years due to its involvement in the illegal Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) project. The rail system, which transports only non-Palestinian Israeli settlers and non-settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to West Jerusalem, was denounced by the UN Human Rights Council for being “in clear violation of international law and relevant United Nations resolutions.” In addition to the Jerusalem Light Rail, Veolia Transportation operates seven Jewish-only bus lines that provide services to illegal settlements in the OPT. Facilitating the movement of these settlers, as previously pointed out, is also in breach of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that “[t]he Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
The BDS Campaign
Given the recurrent violations of international law, legal sanction against Veolia might seem a reasonable course of action. Corporate culpability for human rights violations, however, has limited precedent in international and domestic courts. In France, the legal case against the Jerusalem Light Rail was shot down by the court because it found that corporations could not be in breach of the Geneva Conventions as only states were signatories. In a similar context, Alien Tort Statute class action suits in the United States against the companies that were aiding and abetting the apartheid South African government are still pending a decade after being filed. Just like the case with apartheid South Africa, boycott and divestment appear to be more effective, and faster, tools for redress.
At first, the campaign against Veolia for its involvement in the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) failed to stop Veolia from participating in and profiting from the project. However, it was successful in bringing the world’s attention to this gross violation of the Palestinian rights and International Law. Palestinian non-governmental organizations, the PLO, the Arab League, international law experts, solidarity activists, churches, trade unions, city councils, socially responsible investment advisers, and pension funds have all called on Veolia to end their involvement in Israeli projects in the OPT. As a result of the popular outcry, financial institutions across Europe have sold their shares in the two companies and public authorities in the UK, France, Sweden, Australia, and beyond have excluded them from bidding on public contracts.
In January 2009, for example, Veolia lost the 3.5 billion pound contract to operate subways in Stockholm County that it had held for ten years. Veolia has also lost public contracts, at least partly as a result of its involvement in the JLR, in France, England, Wales, Ireland, Australia and Iran, at a cost totaling billions of Euros. And more recently, in December 2011, Veolia was excluded from a 485 million pound contract for the waste treatment services in West London.
Further efforts targeted another French company, Alstom, which had been involved in the JLR project from its start. In 2008, the BNC, the largest Palestinian civil society coalition, with partners in Europe and Israel, launched the Derail Veolia and Alstom campaign, due to the two companies’ involvement in Israel’s illegal JLR project. In 2011, Alstom lost the bid for the second phase of the Saudi Haramain Railway project, worth ten billion dollars, after pressure from the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, including effective campaigning from the newly launched KARAMA, a European campaign to Keep Alstom Rail And Metro Away.
The Ask: Enacting the Boycott in Saudi Arabia
Before discussing how BDS campaigns against Veolia might manifest in Saudi Arabia, it is helpful to recall the history of the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. In 1945, a year after it was founded, the Arab League started boycotting Zionist goods and services in Palestine. Then in 1948, the boycott was formalized to include three levels: primary, secondary and tertiary boycotts.
- Primary Boycott: No Arab country should import Israeli goods or export goods to the Israeli market, either directly or indirectly.
- Secondary Boycott: No Arab country should conduct business with any company already doing business with Israel.
- Tertiary Boycott: No foreign company should do business with another foreign company that has links to Israel.
Not all Arab countries implemented the boycott against Israel because the Arab League did not enforce it on its members. Therefore, some members did not apply the boycott at all; others ended it and established a trade relation with Israel; and the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced in 1994 that they would end the secondary and tertiary boycott but still enforce the primary boycott. Since Veolia is not an Israeli company, it can not be argued that Saudi should stop doing business with it as it is obliged to do under the Arab League.
However, the Arab League Summit held in Khartoum in 2006 condemned the JLR project, called on “the two French companies [Alstom and Veolia] to immediately withdraw from the project,” and demanded that punitive measures be taken against them “if they don’t comply.” The Arab League, including Saudi Arabia, also urged the French government to take the necessary measure in this respect to honor its obligations under international law.
While Veolia’s partner in the JRL project, Alstom, is being excluded from contracts in Saudi Arabia (recently the Saudi Haramain Railway project worth ten billion dollars), Veolia is thriving in Saudi Arabia, despite Veolia’s gross violations of Palestinian rights. Veolia was operating in Israel long before signing any contracts with Saudi Arabia and their violation of the rights of Palestinians, International Law, and their own mission and objectives is well documented and publicized. The decision by the Saudi government to award very lucrative contracts to Veolia, most recently the 2011 KFUPM agreement, is therefore not only baffling, but also runs counter to the Arab League declaration in 2006.
A company with such a record of ethical violation, profiting from discrimination, and violating International Law and the 2006 Khartoum declaration should not find a welcoming business environment in a country like Saudi Arabia. While Veolia is losing huge deals in cities like London and Stockholm, it is signing deals worth close to one billion dollars in Riyadh. The least one would expect from the Saudi government is to use this leverage to pressure Veolia to abide by International Law and its own mission and stop violating Palestinian rights.