CalPERS requests UN roundtable on ‘responsible investing in the Middle East’ as it begins to engage Veolia and Elbit over ties to occupation

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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More big news on the BDS front as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the country’s public largest pension fund, has responded to activist pressure to divest from companies benefiting from the occupation. Industry newspaper Pensions and Investments reports the fund has begun to engage Veolia and Elbit Systems over ties to the Israeli occupation, and is pushing for a discussion of “responsible investing” in Israel/Palestine at an upcoming U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment meeting in October, 2013:

Institutional investors increasingly are inserting themselves into the Israel-Palestine dispute as they grapple with the thorny question of divesting their stock in some companies doing business in the occupied territories.

The new thrust comes as the controversy over Israel’s occupation of the land it seized from its Arab neighbors after the 1967 Six-Day War is heating up. On Jan. 31, United Nations human rights investigators called on Israel to halt its program to build Jewish settlements in the occupied territory and withdraw settlers, saying Israel was violating international law.

Recent examples of action by institutional investors include:

Staff at the $253.2 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, Sacramento, the nation’s largest defined benefit plan, have an ongoing dialogue with French conglomerate Veolia Environnement SA and Israel-based military and electronics company Elbit Systems Ltd. about their operations in the occupied zone. CalPERS owns $31 million of Veolia stock and $2.4 million of Elbit.

Veolia has operated a landfill catering to Jewish settlements in the occupied zone and built a light rail system that connects the settlements to Jerusalem. It also operates buses in the occupied territories that have excluded Palestinians under the orders of the Israeli military.

Elbit has installed monitoring equipment on a wall more than 400 miles long in the occupied territory that Israel says is designed to stop suicide bombers by limiting Palestinian access to the area through checkpoints. Palestinians say the wall prevents them from having free access to their land. . .

“It is an entanglement of foreign policy (which is) beyond us being able to solve,” said Anne Simpson, CalPERS’ director of global governance. Ms. Simpson said given the complexities of foreign policy issues in the Middle East, she has asked officials at the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment to hold a round table on responsible investing in the Middle East at its next signatory meeting, to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, in October.

Ms. Simpson said PRI officials have been receptive, but the final agenda has not yet been set.

The PRI’s guidelines on corporate behavior in war-torn or conflict-driven areas, posted on the organization’s website, say companies should act as responsible corporate citizens and do no harm in their dealings there.

Ms. Simpson said CalPERS’ staff began discussions with Veolia and Elbit after the Israel Divestment Campaign, an activist group of CalPERS and CalSTRS participants concerned about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, asked the CalPERS board in December 2011 to divest the pension fund’s holdings in those companies.

Ms. Simpson said both Veolia and Elbit have given detailed responses to allegations of human rights violations and “state that their operations in Palestine are consistent with international law.”

She said CalPERS is continuing the engagement process with the companies and is in the process of giving them an opportunity to respond to the Israel Divestment Campaign’s contention that they continue to violate the rights of Palestinians.

The Israel Divestment Campaign which has been working to pressure CalPERS issued the following statement:

Campaign Update:
CalPERS Responds to Divestment Petition

Asks UN Body to Consider Mideast Investment Concerns

In December 2011, more than 5,000 California taxpayers, including almost 900 members of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), appealed to CalPERS to divest its holdings in corporations that enable and profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

Following the Israel Divestment Campaign (IDC) petition presentation, CalPERS initiated a yearlong series of discussions with IDC and began its own policy-driven “engagement process” with two of the five companies targeted by IDC: Elbit Systems Ltd. and Veolia Environnement‡.

Even as this engagement process and the conversations with IDC continue to unfold, CalPERS has responded meaningfully to IDC’s concerns by requesting that the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment (UN PRI) network of investors convene a session on responsible investing in the Middle East during the October 2013 Signatory General Meeting in Capetown, South Africa. This gathering will bring together many of the 1,144 investment managers, asset owners and professional service partners from around the world who have committed to the general principles embodied in the UN PRI initiative.
(See http://www.unpri.org/)

We are pleased that CalPERS, which was one of the original, “drafting” signatories of the UN PRI in 2005, has initiated this proposal and that the UN PRI staff has committed to include the session on the forthcoming Capetown agenda. Although this may not bring immediate investor sanctions against corporations complicit in the violation of Palestinian human rights, it places the issue before this international body. It also puts corporations like Caterpillar, Elbit and Veolia on notice that citizens of California are watching, along with others from around the world.

Indeed, the international community is not only waiting and watching, but as reflected in the UN Human Rights Council report of January 31, 2013, has called on private companies to assess “the human rights impact of their activities and take all necessary steps — including by terminating their business interests in the settlements — to ensure they are not adversely impacting the human rights of the Palestinian People.” One way of doing that, of course, is to call on investors like CalPERS and Cal STRS to use their standing to pressure these corporations, which is precisely what the Israel Divestment Campaign has been doing.

Be sure to check back regularly to follow IDC developments as we plan the next stage of our campaign. You can help us expand the campaign by bringing divestment discussions to your social justice and faith–based organizations, your campuses, your children’s schools, and even your next door neighbors.

‡ For information about the complicity of Elbit and Veolia in human rights violations, visit the WhoProfits website (http://www.whoprofits.org/)

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