Copenhagen city council set to vote on divestment

Adri Nieuwhof, The Electronic Intifada, 22 September 2010

On 23 September, Denmark’s Social Democrat party will have a decisive influence on a Copenhagen city council vote on whether the municipality should divest $2.3 million from companies involved in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The divestment measure was already voted on earlier this month, when on 7 September the City of Copenhagen’s financial committee rejected mayor of social affairs Mikkel Warming’s proposal to divest from the 13 companies profiting from the occupation. Copenhagen has a system of governance lead by committees; the finance committee and six other standing committees each have its own mayor and area of responsibility. The committees make decisions relating to their area, but the mayor of the committee can in exceptional cases overrule the committee’s decision and take a proposal to the city council. The Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, or the head of city council, is Social Democrat Frank Jensen who also serves as mayor of the financial committee.

The city council investments in question are made through Danske Invest, a fund managed by Danske Bank. The bank states on its website that it holds investments to standards of social responsibility and “are made only in securities issued by companies that do not violate the standards for human rights, arms, working conditions, environment and anti-corruption.”

However, data from the Israeli group Who Profits from the Occupation? reveals that Danske Invest holds shares in several companies involved in the occupation, many of which have been reported on previously by The Electronic Intifada: Veolia Environnement, Alstom, Assa Abloy, Caterpillar, Dexia Group, Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH), Heidelberg Cement, Hewlett Packard, Motorola, Unilever, and Volvo Group.

Warming’s proposal comes after a broad coalition of Danish organizations put pressure on Copenhagen to divest from these companies. The Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace and Jamal Juma’, coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign, have publicly supported the Danish coalition’s call in interviews in the Danish press.

The divestment debate received national attention after the Danish newspaper Politiken published on 16 August 2010 an article arguing that Copenhagen municipality should apply principles of social responsibility to its investments.

The authors, representing the Danish international cooperation organization MS-Action Aid, the Danish United Nations Association and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, highlight that half of the $2.3 million in question is invested in Veolia Environnement. Veolia Transport, a subsidiary of the French transportation giant Veolia, is involved in the construction of the Jerusalem light rail project that links West Jerusalem with Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements.

Veolia has come under international pressure for its role in the light rail project, which activists call a “fact on the ground” designed to serve the needs of Israeli settlers. Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank and its annexation of East Jerusalem are illegal under international law. Activists say that Veolia is directly implicated in maintaining this illegal situation and the Palestine Liberation Organization has taken the company to court.

The call for Copenhagen to divest from the Israeli occupation received a boost when Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Lene Espersen stated in a 10 March 2010 press release: “Denmark’s position is very clear: [Israel’s West Bank settlements] are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace” (“Danmark fordí¸mmer israelske planer,” Informacion, 10 March 2010).

The Danish coalition’s divestment call was further affirmed by Esben Rahbek Pedersen, an associate professor at Copenhagen Business School and an expert in corporate social responsibility. He criticized Copenhagen’s disputed investments when he told the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende: “If you say you are critical of the settlements in the Palestinian territories, it is obviously problematic when you support companies that profit from settlements. Ultimately it is about consistency between what you say and do” (“Eksperter kritiserer investeringer,” 7 September 2010).

Meanwhile, the vote of the Social Democrats in Copenhagen city council will be decisive, because they are the party with most representation, holding 17 out of 55 seats. If the Social Democrats join the progressive parties and vote in favor of the proposal, Copenhagen municipality has to divest from companies profiting from the occupation.

However, how the Social Democrats will vote is not guaranteed. The spokesperson of the Danish Social Democrats and member of parliament, Jeppe Kofod, is outspoken on the matter and publicly denounced Copenhagen’s investments in the occupation when he was asked for comment by Berlingske Tidende. Kofod told the newspaper that the investments are contrary to Denmark’s official policy of not supporting the illegal occupation of the West Bank, adding that if Danske Bank is not willing to solve the issue, the City of Copenhagen should look for another financial investment manager. However, first vice-chair on Copenhagen city council, Social Democrat Jesper Christensen, expressed a different view when he told Berlingske Tidende that the municipality can not be held hostage by any foreign policy issue.

No matter the outcome of the vote, the campaign of the Danish coalition to put pressure on Copenhagen municipality to divest from companies profiting from the occupation is another clear indicator of the strength of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in Europe.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.

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