This week a furore has arisen surrounding Oxfam global ambassador, Scarlett Johansson’s decision to sign a promotions deal with the Israeli company SodaStream.
Johansson has been involved with Oxfam since 2007 and has assisted in publicising a broad range of the organisation’s campaigns including travelling to India, Sri Lanka and Kenya. During this time she’s been involved in the commercial promotion of a number of brands, including Dolce & Gabbana and L’Oreal. So what’s the problem with her signing a deal with SodaStream? Well, in brief, the issue is that SodaStream operates a factory in an Israeli settlement called Ma’aleh Adumim in the West Bank. Just in case that sentence doesn’t mean very much to you upon first reading, and you’re still scratching your head as to what all the fuss is about, let’s unpack it one issue at a time:
What is the West Bank?
The West Bank is an area of land forming the main part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). It was seized by Israel during the Six Day War against Jordan and Egypt in June 1967.
Why is it described as the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’?
Since 1967 Israel has been occupying the West Bank. The definition of occupation is found in Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations: ‘[a] territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised’. The West Bank is under the effective control of Israel and is occupied by it, in the sense that Israel has military presence in the territory and controls the activities of the civilians within it.
There are specific rules under international humanitarian law as to what an occupying power must and must not do in the territory during the occupation. Many of these rules can be found in the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 (also known as the Fourth Geneva Convention) as well as the 1907 Hague Regulations. One of the main rules applicable to the issue of settlements in the West Bank is that during the occupation the transfer of the civilian population of the occupying power into the occupied territory is prohibited.
What is a settlement?
A settlement in this context describes a community of Israeli civilians who move into areas of land occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, such as the West Bank. These communities are usually subsidised and supported by infrastructures and services provided by the Israeli government. Although in the past the Israeli government has made limited concessions to the international community as part of various peace-making attempts to halt the building of such settlements in some areas, more recently it has been outspoken in its commitment to continue and expand settlement building.
Since 1967 the Israeli government has implemented a policy of settlement building so that currently approximately 42% of the land area of the West Bank is controlled by settlements and outposts. As a result of the settlements significant controls have been inflicted on the Palestinian population of the territory which have a profoundly detrimental impact on their lives. This includes:
- the huge ‘separation barrier’, or ‘Wall’, which in part snakes deep within the West Bank cutting through towns and villages and even dividing individual private plots of land;
- a restrictive permit regime controlling and limiting movement and associated numerous military checkpoints making movement within the West Bank extremely difficult.
Israeli civilians living in the settlements are not required to pass through checkpoints. Rather, these obstructions to Palestinian freedom of movement are specifically intended to protect the settlements and the settler’s traffic arteries.
In fact, the divisions are such that there are even two separate legal systems, in which a person’s rights are based on their national origin; the settlers being subject to Israel’s legal system, which is based on human rights and democratic values, while the Palestinians are subject to the military legal system, which systematically deprives them of their fundamental rights.
Why are settlements illegal?
The simple answer to this question is that they are illegal because international governing and judicial bodies have asserted that they are illegal. Two important findings by international institutions are as follows:
- On 22 March 1979, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 446 determining that the ‘policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in Palestinian and other occupied territories since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East’. The basis of this determination was on the interpretation that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the territories occupied by Israel since the war in 1967 and that the activities of Israel was in breach of its terms. The resolution was adopted 12 votes to none, with three abstentions by the UK, the USA and Norway.
- More recently, on 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion in which all 15 judges found that Israeli settlements in the West Bank violated international humanitarian law.
Israeli settlements breach international humanitarian law as set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention discussed above, and the impact of their presence and associated infrastructure breach numerous basic rights provided by international human rights law. Settlements are built on land that is taken by force and without consent from the pre-existing resident Palestinian communities in the West Bank. Furthermore the policy and practices of the Israeli military forces operating in the territory in order to protect the settlements breach Palestinians’ fundamental human rights to freedom of movement and social and economic rights, such as the right to access healthcare and education. There are also other related issues as a result of settlement activity whereby Palestinian communities are subject to unlawful detention, breaches of their rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression, and even unlawful killing and torture.
Some of the specific issues relating to violations of Palestinians’ human rights as a result of settlement building are continuing and cumulative, therefore over time having an ever increasingly severe affect. They affect pretty much every area of life for Palestinians living in the West Bank and include violations of:
- the right of property – by seizing control of extensive stretches of West Bank land in favour of the settlements;
- the right to equality and due process – as a result of the separate legal systems for Palestinians and Israelis mentioned above;
- the right to an adequate standard of living – since the settlements were intentionally established in a way that prevents urban development of Palestinian communities meaning Palestinian communities live in evermore cramped and deteriorating environments;
- the right to water – Israel’s control of the scarce water sources in the region prevents the development of Palestinian agriculture, not to mention limiting its availability for use domestically, for consumption, hygiene and healthcare;
- the right to freedom of movement – by means of the checkpoints and other obstructions on Palestinians’ movements in the West Bank;
- the right to self-determination (which means the rights of people to determine their own political status and governance) – by deliberately dividing Palestinian communities by means of checkpoints and the ‘separation barrier’, creating dozens of enclaves, preventing the possibility of an independent and viable Palestinian state.
But that’s all international law of war and states against states – what’s all that got to do with SodaStream?
In the past it might have been fair to say that only states (i.e. governments) have a duty to protect, respect and remedy individuals’ human rights. However, in 2011 the UN produced their Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which unequivocally stated a principle already existing nebulously in international and human rights law: businesses have a corporate responsibility to protect human rights as well. Therefore it is not acceptable for a company, like SodaStream, to operate in a manner which supports or contributes to the violation of human rights and to illegality under international humanitarian law.
Oxfam has been doing some fantastic work over the years campaigning for better business practices when it comes to human rights and increased corporate accountability. Although I don’t think they’ve campaigned directly against SodaStream (I couldn’t find anything online), they certainly are working hard to advocate for the rights of Palestinian communities being affected by settlement building and other issues relating to the occupation. You can therefore understand why they are seriously considering what the actress’s relationship with SodaStream ‘means for Ms. Johansson’s role as an Oxfam global ambassador’.
Although Scarlett Johansson has issued her own statement in reply stating that she ‘never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance’, this whole issue cannot fail but raise pertinent questions as to the responsibility we all have in such lofty-seeming matters as the enforcement of international humanitarian and human rights law, whether as part of governments, companies or as individuals.
Charlotte Stevens – LPHR Secretary