In a March 2020 interview posted on a fringe website, BDS activist Shir Hever revealed new details about the creation and operation of the United Nations’ BDS blacklist. (For information on the list, known in U.N. parlance as “database,” see NGO Monitor’s Key Issue page.)
Hever’s interview raises the standard BDS claims relating to the list: that doing business in conflict zones and situations of occupation is illegal; that the United States and Israel were responsible for delaying the lists’ publication by three years (in fact, the European Union and many other governments were also opposed to the creation of the list and sought to cancel it); and that this list was not an aberration because the United Nations had prepared similar lists for the DRC and Myanmar (again, these comparisons are false).
Yet, in the interview, Hever also made some notable and striking admissions.
Based on several meetings I had between 2016 and 2019 with the United Nations officials responsible for crafting the list at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and as reflected in the citations of the relevant U.N. reports, BDS NGOs and activists worked closely with OHCHR to prepare the list. In his interview, Hever confirms this collaboration, noting he was involved along with “many, many, other activists.” In other words, the contents of the blacklist appear to have been determined with the help of selected political NGOs and lobbyists chosen by the OHCHR, in violation of basic due diligence requirements.
Another important admission made by Hever relates to concerns I raised on multiple occasions via letters to former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein and current Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, and also in person with other responsible officials. It was plain that the United Nations did little to no investigation of the targeted companies and had no capacity to do so. Indeed, Hever states that if a company told the United Nations it was not involved in the West Bank, the United Nations “removed them from the list without checking” and that companies were included because they “didn’t bother to answer the Human Rights Committee [sic].”
Notably, the blacklist tarnishes all the companies with the same defamatory brush and provides no evidence to support the United Nations’ claims of alleged human rights violations.
Hever notes that the list was compiled three years ago, demonstrating yet another due process concern I raised with Bachelet and her subordinates.
Hever also mentions the strange case of Germany. In 2018, the United Nations issued its first report on the list. At the time, the United Nations did not name the selected companies, but instead published a table breaking down the number of companies by country. Countries were notified by letters from the OHCHR of the companies located in their jurisdiction. In the 2018 report, the United Nations said it had identified seven German companies for potential inclusion. Yet, in the 2020 publication of the list, no German companies appeared. The failure to include any Germany companies raises several questions as to whether Germany engaged in backroom dealings with the United Nations to get its companies removed from the list or whether it pressured those companies to divest in order to get them off the list. The German government should answer these questions.
Pro-BDS groups are desperately seeking to operationalize the blacklist in hopes that universities, large pension funds, and governments will adopt the list wholesale and divest from the listed companies—despite the defamatory nature of the blacklist and the manifest due process violations involved in its compilation. They also seek to launch international campaigns against the named companies to force them to cease their operations.
Unsurprisingly, and in order to play both sides, Bachelet allowed for the publication of the list, but at the same time tried to downplay its impact. Her deputy appeared on France24 TV after its release, claiming OHCHR had “taken care not to go beyond the remit” of the Human Rights Council, and that the database “is not as some claimed a blacklist, nor does it qualify as any company’s activities as illegal.”
Nevertheless, the purpose of the list is crystal clear to activists like Hever: “Of course, no one can see any kind of use for that list except to organize boycott, divestment, and sanctions against these particular companies, so of course, it has something to do with the BDS movement … the BDS movement now has the responsibility to take that list and make use of it.”
Anne Herzberg is the legal adviser of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute, and the U.N. representative for the Institute for NGO Research.