A Norwegian government official clarified last week that Norway’s procurement office will not stop doing business with firms on a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) blacklist. The rejection, coming from a country that has been at the forefront of anti-Israel boycott campaigns, is a significant test case for the relevance of the controversial blacklist.
In March 2016, the UNHRC passed a resolution calling for the creation of a database of companies operating in “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory … and in the occupied Syrian Golan.” High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released the list in February 2020, naming 112 companies whose activities were said to raise “particular human rights concerns.” No such UN list exists for any other conflict zone around the world.
Most of the companies in question were listed because of generic business activities, such as using water and providing banking services. International law does not prohibit companies from doing business in disputed territories.
Norway has been at the forefront of the campaign to weaponize this list. Weeks after the list’s release, a consortium of four Norwegian universities cited the list as justification to exclude Egencia, a subsidiary of Expedia, from a contract bid to provide travel services. Two international trade unions subsequently urged the Government Pension Fund of Norway to divest from firms on the list. The fund has not publicly responded to the submission.
In a surprising turn, the director of the Norwegian Government Procurement Center now indicates his agency will not cut ties with blacklisted firms. The director said, “Our procurement law assessment is that we have neither the right nor the duty to reject Egencia from the competition as a result of the conditions discussed.”
This clarification comes after the boycott campaign’s initial flurry of activity in the Scandinavian country. In May 2017, Norway’s largest trade union called for a total boycott of Israel. In October 2019, Oslo became the sixth Norwegian municipality to ban West Bank settlement goods. However, in early 2019, Norway’s new government, seen as friendlier to Israel, announced that it found anti-Israel boycotts to be unhelpful. Then, in April 2020, the Norwegian parliament rejected a bill to require special labeling for Israeli products from the West Bank.
Norway’s Government Pension Fund has been at the center of this boycott debate. It is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, with over $1 trillion in assets, including 1.5 percent of the world’s stocks and shares, making it an attractive target for divestment activists.
The Norwegian fund currently excludes two Israeli companies, which has not gone unnoticed. Texas’ Pension Review Board announced in April 2019 that it would divest $72 million from the company overseeing the Norwegian blacklist.
Thus far, despite some minor divestments, the UNHRC blacklist has been an ineffective tool for anti-Israel boycott activists. The Government Procurement Center decision only affirms this to be true. In the United States, both the incoming administration and U.S. states with anti-boycott laws will likely continue to reject this list as well. Increasingly, the decision to ignore the list stems from an understanding that it is simply a tool to target Israelis, not a means of promoting human rights.
David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Haley Weinischke is an intern. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power(CEFP). For more analysis from the authors and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Haley on Twitter at @DavidSamuelMay and @HaleyWeinischke. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.