Western Sahara – Divesting from all occupations

By Stephen Zunes

In response to ongoing violations of international law and basic human rights by the rightist Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu in the occupied West Bank and elsewhere, there has been a growing call for divestment of stocks in corporations supporting the occupation.

Modeled after the largely successful divestment campaign in the 1980s against corporations doing business in apartheid South Africa, the movement targets companies that support the Israeli occupation by providing weapons or other instruments of repression to Israeli occupation forces, investing in or trading with enterprises in illegal Israeli settlements, and in other ways.

Although human rights activists recognize such tactics as a legitimate form of nonviolent international solidarity with an oppressed people, right-wing groups supporting the occupation as well as some more moderate organizations concerned about the strident anti-Israel tone of some divestment supporters have denounced the movement.

Still, the campaign has scored notable successes. One target of the campaign has been the Caterpillar company, which has provided Israeli occupation forces with bulldozers that have illegally demolished thousands of Palestinian homes. In recent months, TIAA/CREF— the leading provider of retirement benefits for those in the academic, research, medical, and cultural fields—has removed Caterpillar from its Social Choice Fund.

The influential Morgan Stanley Capital International has delisted Caterpillar from its World Socially Responsible Index, and the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation has joined a growing list of groups which have divested stockholdings in the company. At the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, a resolution to divest from Caterpillar, along with Motorola and Hewlett Packard, for their complicity in the occupation was defeated by the narrowest of margins.
Opposing Occupation Everywhere

At the Presbyterian gathering and elsewhere, many opponents of the divestment resolution acknowledged that the Israeli government is engaged in serious human rights abuses in the occupied territories, but expressed concerned that the divestment resolution unfairly “singles out Israel.” Indeed, there are a number of governments in the world that engage in worse human rights abuses than Israel, and violations of human rights should be opposed regardless if they take place within a country’s internationally-recognized borders or in an illegally occupied territory. Given that Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, there is understandably particular sensitivity if Israel alone is seen as being targeted, however serious the government’s transgressions.

However, there is a much stronger legal case for opposing human rights abuses in territories recognized as under foreign belligerent occupation. International law prohibits under most circumstances foreign companies from exploiting natural resources within such territories. Similarly, there are a host of legal issues regarding the export of weapons and other military resources to country’s that utilize them in suppressing the rights of those under occupation.

Indeed, these very issues were subjected to international debate during South Africa’s occupation of Namibia, Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, and Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

Today, there are only three countries that are engaged in what the United Nations and the international community recognize as a foreign belligerent occupation: Israel, Morocco, and Armenia. (Although a moral case can be made for the independence of Tibet, Chechnya, and West Papua (as well as a number of other territories that aspire to become independent), the international community deems them as being within the internationally recognized borders of China, Russia and Indonesia respectively, and are therefore not recognized as occupied territories.)

Virtually no major international companies support Armenia’s current occupation of the small strip of Azerbaijan territory it controls. However, a number of companies support Morocco’s ongoing illegal occupation of the nation of Western Sahara.

U.S.-based Kosmos Energy is the only oil company in the world licensed for offshore oil exploration in the territorial waters of occupied Western Sahara. In 2002, a UN legal analysis determined that proceeding with such exploration activities would be in violation of international law. Similarly, two U.S. fertilizer companies – PCS and Mosaic – are major customers of Morocco’s illegal phosphate production in occupied Western Sahara. And, as is the case of the Israeli-occupied territories, U.S.-based arms manufacturers have supplied Moroccan occupation forces engaged in what independent human rights groups have described as gross and systematic human rights violations, including manufacturers of the teargas that has been used to break up peaceful demonstrations calling for the right of self-determination.
Expanding the Boycott

The Palestinian solidarity struggle would be considerably strengthened if, instead of calling for divestment specifically from companies supporting the Israeli occupation, the call was for divestment from companies supporting all foreign belligerent occupations.

Since it would effectively mean just one additional country and only a small number of companies, it would not take much attention away from the Israeli occupation and Western companies supporting the occupation. More importantly, it would help move the debate away from a divisive pro-Israel vs. anti-Israel dichotomy, where people often end up just talking past each other, to where the debate belongs: human rights and international law.

Morocco is a predominantly Arab Muslim country. By including Western Sahara along with Palestine, the movement would avoid the accusation that it is unfairly singling out Israel. After all, it would be targeting all illegal occupations, not just one.

Morocco, like Israel, is in violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice regarding their occupation. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally moved tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory. Morocco, like Israel, engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally built a separation wall through the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, relies on the United States and other Western support to maintain the occupation by rendering the UN powerless to enforce international law. Morocco, like Israel, is able to maintain the occupation in part through the support of multinational corporations.

And just as Palestine is recognized by scores of countries and is a full member of the Arab League, Western Sahara is recognized by scores of countries and is a full member of the African Union, thereby insuring international support.

Not only would including all occupations in the divestment campaign help protect the movement from spurious charges of “anti-Semitism” and broaden its appeal, it would help bring attention to the little-known but important self-determination struggle of the Sahrawi people against the illegal and oppressive Moroccan occupation of their country, which was invaded by the U.S.-backed kingdom in 1975, eight years after the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and other Arab territories. (For a summary of the Western Sahara struggle and its implications, see Western Sahara: The Other Occupation)

Given the intense polarization, harsh polemics, and suspicions regarding Israel and Palestine, a campaign based more on universal legal and moral principles against occupation, rather than targeting a particular country that has a strong and influential domestic constituency, would be far more effective. Given the suffering of the Palestinian (and Sahrawi) peoples and the complicity of the U.S. government and U.S. corporations in their oppression, they deserve nothing less.

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