G4S, the global security company, came under further pressure on Monday when a UK government-funded watchdog agreed to investigate its activities in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
G4S supplies and services screening and security equipment to military checkpoints, prisons and detention centres in the West Bank and Israel.
By Gill Plimmer
The National Contact Point sits within the Department for Business and is responsible for ensuring the OECD’s standards for the behaviour of multinationals are fulfilled.
It is expected to examine whether the supplying and servicing of equipment in the checkpoints infringes on the human rights of Palestinians. It will also examine the use of screening equipment in prisons and detention centres in Israel and the West Bank.
The investigation shines a spotlight on the murky area of what constitutes ethical practice for multinationals. G4S has been under pressure from pro-Palestinian protesters over its work for the Israeli authorities for several years and is expected to face protests outside its annual general meeting on Thursday.
The investigation follows a formal complaint to the NCP by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, a charity that has criticised G4S’s work in the region. The NCP, which has carried out investigations elsewhere into the mining company Xstrata and BT, will conduct a process of mediation between the campaign group and G4S.
G4S, which employs 6,000 people in Israel, said it “takes very seriously our obligations to ensure that our activities do not contribute to human rights abuses. We have provided evidence which clearly demonstrates that the company is acting appropriately in the context of international laws and voluntary human rights guidelines including those set out by the OECD”.
G4S said it would support the NCP’s process but cited the watchdog’s “clear acknowledgment that the company carries out extensive due diligence and ongoing review of the potential human rights risks of its business”.
The group has already said it will not seek to renew the West Bank contracts when they end in 2015. It argues that its staff simply fix and install security equipment such as CCTV and are not directly involved in the management of the prisons or checkpoints.
But the arguments have failed to satisfy the pro-Palestinian campaign groups, which want the company to exit all its contracts for the Israeli government.
Last year another campaign group, War on Want, wrote to Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, urging him to sell his stake in G4S because of its involvement in Israel.
His charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust, had bought 3.2 per cent of G4S through his investment group Cascade last June for £110m but reduced his stake to below 3 per cent last week. The Gates foundation declined to comment on the reasons behind the sale.
Tareq Shrourou, director of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, welcomed the “acknowledgment that there are serious issues raised by our complaint”.
“We hope that the process will contribute to a positive transformation of the human rights situation for Palestinians adversely impacted by the company’s activities.”
The Israeli embassy in London said that the Israeli NCP was co-operating with the UK NCP and would continue to follow the proceedings.