SHANNON QUINN, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
For many students at GW, the complex array of issues learned in international affairs classes in the Elliott School seems a world away. Although the forces of globalization make it an exciting and relevant time to undertake international relations, it might not always be obvious how to connect worldly problems with local action.
One clear avenue in which to accomplish this connection is through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been building up global momentum. As I’ve heard joked again and again, it’s the goal of many students here at GW to “solve” Middle East peace. Sixty-seven years of unrelenting Palestinian-Israeli conflict make this an admirable, albeit lofty, goal. But how would this contentious (and surely controversial) move help the situation? What’s its relevance to GW, and would it actually make any clear difference on an international stage?
What is BDS?
The BDS movement began on July 9, 2005, a year following the advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on the illegality of the Israeli separation wall. Palestinian civil society called for the mobilization of global support “to launch broad boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognized in full compliance with international law.”
Of particular interest in this movement in a university setting is divestment. The primary goal of divestment is targeting corporations that comply with violating Palestinian rights under international law, “ensuring that the likes of university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance such companies.” This effort works to raise awareness about Israeli policies and exert economic pressure to end those that do not comply fully with international law.
There are many intertwining issues at hand within the overarching Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not all of which can be adequately unpacked and addressed here. However, if one thing is clear, it’s that the current status quo of the Israeli occupation cannot continue if serious progress in the peace process is to be made. International pressure, from the bottom up, is an opportunity to change this status quo and place a warranted weight upon Israel to grant basic dignity and human rights to the Palestinians.
Divestment actions to exert economic and social pressure are not without precedent. In the 1970s, student-led activism at universities across the United States prompted divestment from apartheid South Africa. Although this was clearly not the only force behind ending the apartheid, its contribution was tangible.
Desmond Tutu writes, in support of recent divestment efforts by UCLA, “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.” Even GW students, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, took an active role in protesting apartheid South Africa and calling for similar sanctions against the state until they ended their internationally illicit practices.
Efforts by student activists across the country have begun to unfold to pressure their universities to divest. Most recently, on November 18, 2014, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) student government was the sixth UC campus to pass a resolution calling on their administration to divest from companies such as Boeing, General Electric, and Hewlett-Packard. In this resolution, student leaders cite several reasons for divestment.
These reasons range from bigger picture, citing the standards of the United Nations-endorsed Principles of Responsible Investment, to how UCLA students themselves are impacted by adverse investment policies. According to the resolution, “the consequences of these companies’ actions also affect the UCLA community directly, including students whose families experience occupation, systematic discrimination, death, injury, and other forms of human rights violations.”
And it’s not just universities that are divesting. Last June, the United Methodist Church decided to sell its stock in a company that provides military equipment to Israel. The European Union has also voted in the past to divest from companies that comply with Israeli violations of international law.
Can we have student driven peace?
This past summer, thousands of lives were disrupted or lost with Operation Protective Edge, the latest round of fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip. A continuation of the conflict within the current status quo inevitably means more lives lost and unsettled, with bouts of tension similar to last summer erupting at any possible moment.
As GW students, we are in a unique position to be more active our roles as participants in an international community, fighting for human rights standards and peace on a higher level. Bringing BDS activism to campus—perhaps in the form of a resolution that GW divest from companies violating international law—would provide a channel to showcase student power on an international stage.
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