Derail Veolia Campaign: showcase of international cooperation and creative action
This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.
Shortly after the BDS call from Palestinian civil society, the involvement of French transport giants, Veolia and Alstom, in the construction in the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) project was exposed. The light rail system links West Jerusalem to the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, strengthening Israel's grip on occupied East Jerusalem. Veolia and Alstom's involvement in the Jerusalem tramway project involves assisting Israel in its violation of international law.
Swiss activists of Collectif Urgence Palestine responded by blocking the Veolia shuttle bus to Geneva's exposition hall “Palexpo”. The media attention inspired clients of the Dutch social responsible ASN Bank to call for divestment from Veolia because the company's role in the JLR. Veolia's refusal to respond to the concerns of ASN Bank paved the way to the bank's decision to divest from Veolia.
Meanwhile, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign had convinced trade unionists against allowing the Dublin tram system to be used for training Veolia's JLR drivers.
In France, Association France Palestine Solidarité (AFPS) found another way to show Veolia and Alstom were on the wrong track with the JLR. The companies were taken to court in March 2007. AFPS claimed the contracts concerning Veolia and Alstom's activities in the JLR should be nullified because they are contrary to French law. The PLO sent a clear signal the French companies that the JLR was not in the interest of the Palestinian people by joining AFPS in the legal action. The hearings on the case will start this year.
The increasing pressure on Veolia most likely contributed to the company's decision to stay away from the expansion of the JLR. In April 2007, French Egis Rail won an 11.9 million Euro contract to support the seven kilometer expansion of the line already under construction.
In 2008, divestment actions led to the announcement of the Dutch Triodos Bank and the Swiss Alternative Bank that Veolia and Alstom did not meet their criteria for investments. Swiss Sarasin Bank agreed that “the issue is controversial”, but wanted to await the outcome of the trial in France. Dutch SNS Bank acknowledged that Veolia and Alstom's activities on the JLR are unwanted in “the framework of a responsible peace process”, but did not divest. One year later, Swedish pension fund AP7 decided to exclude Alstom because of its involvement in the JLR.
The pressure on Veolia and Alstom intensified after Palestinian, progressive Israeli and international organizations and social movements agreed to a common action plan end 2008. The meeting in Bilbao took place at the intitiative of the Palestinian BNC.
In Sweden, Veolia's bidding for a contract to operate the subway system in Stockholm county caught the attention of the media as a spin off from a report by the Christian development organisation Diakonia on Assa Abloy. The company owned a factory in Barkan Industrial Zone, in the occupied West Bank. Activists used the opportunity to inform the public about Veolia and the JLR. Veolia lost the US$ 4.5 billion contract end January 2009.
In the UK, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign organized the “Sandwell Bin Veolia Campaign” to pressurize the city council to exclude Veolia from bidding for a US$ 1.4 billion waste collection contract. Veolia did not reach the shortlist.
In France, the BDS group in Bordeaux campaigned against Veolia's bidding for a US$ 1 billion contract to manage the biggest French urban transport network in Bordeaux. Veolia lost the tender.
Australians for Palestine campaigned for months to call on the transport minister of Victoria State to “Dump Connex” from operating Melbourne's train system. The outcome was that Veolia subsidiary Connex was dumped.
Representatives of the BNC called on Iran to back up its rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause by acting on the BDS call. In response, the London based Islamic Human Rights Council put pressure on the mayor of Tehran by rallying students to express their discontent about Veolia's role in the development of the city's transport system. Tehran decided to cancel Veolia's involvement in the project
Local authorities tend to give commercial reasons for Veolia losing their bidding procedures. Maybe they fear legal repercussions, but British attorney Daniel Machover argues that European local authorities have the power to exclude a company from bidding for a contract or to reject a bid where it is found that the organization has committed an act of grave misconduct in the course of his business of profession. This follows from European Law, Directive 2004/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 on the co-ordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts. Veolia's role in the JLR can be characterized as grave misconduct. In the UK, some local authorities have been informed about this and can expect legal action in case they sign a public contract with Veolia.
The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign adopted a different strategy towards city councils by calling for adoption of a motion to refuse to sign or renew contracts with Veolia. The councils of Sligo County, Galway City and Dublin City adopted such a motion.
Meanwhile, the BNC reached out to Arab states and called on the the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates to end their ties with Alstom and Veolia. The Palestinian Authority, the Jerusalem Mufti Mohammad Hussein and Orthodox Bishop Attalah Hannah supported the call.
The international cooperation between solidarity groups, lawyers, trade unions, social movements and concerned citizens in Palestine, Israel and many countries worked well. The pressure on Veolia forced the company to announce its intended withdrawal from the JLR in July 2009. However, Veolia cannot leave the project. Israeli Dan Bus has bought part of Veolia's share in the JLR, but the company is not equipped to operate the JLR. Veolia will be involved in the JLR by its support to Dan Bus for at least five years.
Veolia is involved in different projects of the Israeli occupation. The company operates regular bus services to the illegal settlements, including Beit Horon and Givat Zeev, along Road 443. Veolia also collects waste from the illegal settlements and owns Tovlan landfill in the occupied Jordan Valley. The waste dumped in Tovlan comes mainly from Israeli municipalities and illegal settlements. Through its involvement in these projects Veolia is directly implicated in maintaining illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and plays a role in Israel's attempt to make its annexation of Palestinian East Jerusalem irreversible.
In late 2010 and early 2011 Veolia and Alstom both announced that they would sell their shares in the Jerusalem Light Rail. Nevertheless, the two companies will continue to profit from the scheme for years to come and the pressure on them must continue until such time as they admit responsibility for their actions, provide reparations to their Palestinian victims and be held accountable for their gross complicity with Israeli violations of international law.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.