Jillian Kestler-D’Amours for Al-Monitor, 10 April 10 2013
BIL’IN, West Bank — In a move that could greatly impact the actions of third-party states and companies currently profiting from Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in the West Bank, the Palestinian village of Bil’in recently filed a complaint against Canada with the United Nations.
Residents allege that Canada failed to prevent two Canadian companies — Greenpark International and Greenmount International — from constructing and profiting from settler houses built on their land in the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit.
“They don’t respect the international law when they [are] coming and building settlements with illegal methods in our lands,” explained Abdallah Abu Rahmah, an activist and member of the Bil’in Popular Committee.
Bil’in presented its case on March 18 to the UN Human Rights Committee, a body of judicial experts that monitors states’ implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The petition argues that Canada “violated its extra-territorial obligation to ensure respect” for five separate articles of the ICCPR.
This isn’t the first time that Bil’in residents sued the two Canadian-registered corporations. Residents took their case to the Quebec Superior Court in Montreal in 2008, accusing the companies of “aiding and abetting the commission of a war crime.”
The Quebec court ruled against the villagers’ petition, however, deciding that Canada didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter, and that the complaint should be heard in Israel instead.
“But we know about the situation in Israel. The courts and the system support building settlements,” Abu Rahmah told Al-Monitor. He said that the lack of justice in Israeli and Canadian courts pushed Bil’in to seek accountability at the UN.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power may not transfer its civilian population to the territory it occupies, and that doing so constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy also stipulates that companies — and the countries where these companies are registered — should ensure they respect international law standards in their work, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions.
“This is a new approach to human rights enforcement in international law,” explained Israeli attorney Michael Sfard, who is representing the villagers of Bil’in in their complaint. “The idea is that the states’ obligations do not end in avoiding directly violating human rights, but also that they have to regulate the activity of nationals and corporations when those are acting abroad.”
Sfard told Al-Monitor that Canada has six months from the date the complaint was submitted (March 18) to respond. The UN Committee is then expected to make a decision.
“If [the committee decides] that Canada was wrong, then I hope that they will also indicate what are the remedies that Canada has to secure,” he added.
“Canada has post-facto not provided remedy for the victims of these abuses. After our long attempt to get remedy in Canadian courts, which was denied … the Canadian courts have sent us [back] to Israeli courts. Israeli courts are fundamentally not appropriate because in Israel, Israeli courts have concluded that the issue of settlements is not a matter for the courts to [decide].”
Decades of Israeli land confiscation
The Palestinian village of Bil’in — located only 12 kilometers from Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank — counts approximately 1,800 residents. Since 2005, villagers have held weekly demonstrations every Friday to denounce the Israeli separation wall that cuts through their land, and Israel’s continued settlement expansion and occupation.
The Jewish-only settlement of Modi’in Illit, which now holds more than 46,000 residents, was built on land that Israel confiscated from the village, while construction of Israel’s separation wall cut Bil’in off from over half of its land.
In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the state to dismantle and rebuild a section of the wall that runs through Bil’in. The ruling was finally implemented in 2011, when 25% of the land was returned to local residents.
There are currently 520,000 Jewish-Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank, including 200,000 in east Jerusalem. Over the past decade, the Israeli settler population has grown at a rate of 5.3% annually, compared to only 1.8% growth inside Israel proper.
“They are making our life very difficult. They confiscated our land. They don’t allow us to work on it,” said Abdallah Abu Rahmah, explaining that the Israeli authorities grant residents access to large areas of their agricultural land only once a year.
“Our protest is to remove the settlements on our land, and destroy the wall on our land. Secondly, Bil’in was a model in all of the world in using non-violent resistance and for this, we will continue our struggle until we remove the occupation from our land.”
Setting a precedent
A recent UN-appointed fact-finding mission to assess the impact of Israeli settlements on Palestinians stated that countries must ensure that businesses domiciled under their jurisdiction that work in or in relation to Israeli settlements respect basic Palestinian human rights.
“Private companies must 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,” it found.
Since Palestine received upgraded, non-member observer standing at the UN last year, many local groups have urged the Palestinian Authority (PA) to hold Israel accountable at the ICC for alleged war crimes.
While the PA has publicly threatened to go to the ICC, it recently announced that it would suspend efforts to use UN mechanisms to give US-led peace talks a chance to get off the ground. American Secretary of State John Kerry met separately with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week.
According to attorney Michael Sfard, Bil’in’s complaint to the UN could not only set an important precedent for Palestinians, but change the conduct of all corporations doing business outside of their national borders.
“If we are successful in this complaint, that means that we will secure a very mighty tool,” Sfard said. “That means that states will have to … regulate companies’ conduct extraterritorially. That would be a huge, huge development in international human rights law.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. She is a regular contributor to Inter Press Service news agency, Al Jazeera English and Free Speech Radio News. Follow her on Twitter: @jilldamours.