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Holding our universities accountable: The case for divestment

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"There can be no question about the right, in fact responsibility, of students to express their concerns about official actions of their university, and to call on university authorities to refrain from improper actions -- in this case, indirect participation in ongoing crimes."

-- Noam Chomsky, April 2010, Statement in support of Berkeley Divestment Campaign

On Monday, March 7 and Thursday, March 10 Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) -- heeding the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) -- launched campaigns demanding that York University and the University of Toronto (UT) divest from companies which violate international law and perpetuate an illegal apartheid regime. SAIA's investigations have revealed that our universities, through their pension and endowment funds, have millions of dollars invested in BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, Hewlett Packard and Lockheed Martin, all corporations that profit from heinous human rights violations. These companies are actively involved in significant breaches of international law in Palestine, and York and UT's holdings in these companies also make them complicit in the commission of these crimes.

BAE Systems is a global defence, security and aerospace company, and currently the world's third-largest weapons manufacturer. It produced weaponry, including F-16 combat aircrafts, cluster bombs and weapon components, used in Israel's 2008/09 assault on Gaza. The Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (commonly known as the "Goldstone Report") concluded that Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity. BAE Systems -- in which York holds $2,286,486 and UT $1,746,000 worth of shares -- contributed to the weaponry that Israel used in these internationally condemned crimes against Palestinian civilians.

Northrop Grumman, another large weapons manufacturer, also contributed to the production of various components and weapons used in the killing of civilians by Israel in its 2008/09 attack on Gaza. Significantly, this company is the sole provider of radars for F-16 combat aircrafts -- aircrafts which, according to Amnesty International, played a central role in the killing of Palestinian civilians and the wholesale destruction of Palestinian civilian and economic infrastructure. Shamefully, York currently holds $1,032,744 and UT holds $1,157,000 worth of shares in this company.

Hewlett Packard (HP), one of the world's largest information technology companies, is implicated in the ongoing collective punishment of Palestinians through the production of checkpoint technologies used in the West Bank and information technology infrastructure that facilitates the ongoing illegal naval blockade of Gaza. In particular, HP aids the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in its illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by supplying it with personal computers, servers, and virtualization systems. By aiding and abetting the IDF, HP -- in which York holds $14,626,414 worth of shares and UT an undisclosed amount -- is implicated in numerous violations of international law and human rights.

Finally, Lockheed Martin, an arms manufacturer based in the United States, is currently the largest overseas supplier for the Israeli armament industry. In particular, this company is involved in the manufacturing of F-16 combat aircrafts and Hellfire missiles, which have together contributed to hundreds of civilian deaths in both Gaza and Lebanon. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned the IDF's use of American-built military weapons, stating that hundreds of Palestinian civilians had been killed or injured in Israeli attacks, largely by explosives dropped on heavily populated areas. SAIA is demanding that UT divest its undisclosed amount of shares and that York refuse to reinvest in Lockheed Martin.

In short, these companies reap massive profits by further entrenching an illegal apartheid regime that violently infringes upon Palestinians' fundamental rights and freedoms. By investing in these firms, York and UT not only reveal the hypocrisy of their explicitly stated commitments to human rights and social justice, but these universities also become complicit in these breaches of international law. Furthermore, according to Principle VII of the Nuremberg Principles, "complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity [...] is a crime under international law." In other words, York and UT are in breach of international law through their indirect participation in, and profiteering from, war crimes.

It is therefore imperative for all students, faculty, staff and alumni who are committed to principles of equity and social justice, and who refuse to be part of institutions that so egregiously violate these principles, to join SAIA in demanding that:

(1) York University and the University of Toronto immediately divest from and refuse to reinvest in BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, Hewlett Packard and Lockheed Martin.

(2) York University and the University of Toronto refrain from investing in all companies involved in violations of international law.

(3) York University and the University of Toronto work with students, faculty and staff to undergo a democratic and transparent process to ensure accountability to principles of social and environmental justice.

Our global petition has already garnered support from over 100 faculty members and organizations. Over half of these signatories are professors from Toronto's universities, and many of the rest are faculty in a diversity of disciplines across Canada. In addition, notable signatories include world-renowned academic Judith Butler, co-founder of the BDS campaign Omar Barghouti, and award-winning filmmaker Ken Loach.

This broad-based support for SAIA's divestment campaign was made possible within the context of the rapidly growing success of the global BDS movement. In 2005, over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations called for boycott, divestment and sanctions to be maintained until Israel meets its obligations to comply with international law. Specifically, the call demands that Israel end the occupation of all Arab lands, recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinians to full equality, and respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

As the BDS movement gains momentum around the word, more and more institutions are cutting their ties to apartheid Israel. Notably, in 2009, Hampshire College in the U.S. became the first university to divest, when the administration succumbed to pressure to remove its investments in six complicit companies.

SAIA at York and UT are also following in the brave footsteps of SAIA -- Carleton who launched their own divestment campaign over a year ago in Ottawa. After mobilizing the support of over two dozen campus organizations, on February 17 SAIA achieved unprecedented victory when their student union passed a motion in support of divestment from the illegal occupation.

As we bring this struggle to Toronto's campuses, we must remember that it was only after years of concerted pressure from students, faculty and staff that York's and UT's administrations decided to divest from South Africa in 1986 and 1988, respectively. As the second Canadian university to divest, York proudly set a precedence that eventually led to all other Canadian universities cutting their ties with South Africa. However, the experience at UT tells a different story. It is a shameful part of UT's history that it was the last university in all of Canada to take a stance against South Africa's apartheid regime. Join Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York and UT to ensure that neither university is the last once again to cut their ties to an apartheid state, and instead that they become leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle for human rights and equality.

Shozab Raza is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and an organizer with Students Against Israeli Apartheid -- U of T.

Katherine Lapointe is a graduate student in Environmental Studies at York University and an organizer with Students Against Israeli Apartheid -- York.

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