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Boost to University of Copenhagen's controversial West Bank investments

New internal documents from the university's management show that controversial investments have skyrocketed. Management maintains that the investments are OK, even though several of the companies are blacklisted by the United Nations.

DKK 1,034,712.64.

This is what UCPH (University of Copenhagen) had — via its asset managers as of September 2022 — chosen to invest in foreign companies that are on the UN list of actors who may be involved in violating Palestinian human rights.

This number would later turn into a real headache for the University of Copenhagen.

The Students against the Occupation group had criticised the fact that the investments are in companies which include the production of construction machinery and commercial vehicles used to demolish Palestinian villages, for the construction of the Israeli separation barrier, and for the delivery of traffic control and phone lines in illegal settlements.

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New figures now show that investments have topped DKK 8.9 million in companies that, according to the UN, are involved in ‘the provision of services and utilities that support the maintenance and existence of settlements, including transport’.

This can be seen in internal documents in the possession of the University Post.

The companies profit from supporting and maintaining illegal settlements

Olivia Zart, Students Against the Occupation

The UCPH has specifically expanded its investment portfolio to include companies such as and eDreams Odigeo, which rent out homes located in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The investments are once again attracting heat from the student organisation Students Against the Occupation.

»We have been running a campaign since the autumn of 2021 to get UCPH to withdraw its investments in companies with activities in Israeli settlements in Palestine. After a long campaign, we met with Rector Henrik C. Wegener in February this year to hand over 1,297 signatures with our demands. Wegener acknowledged our criticism and said that he would take our demands to the Board,« says Rebecca Knirke, who is active in Students Against the Occupation.

»It is therefore hugely disappointing that UCPH still, despite countless calls from students, invests in Israeli settlements, and that the number has even increased significantly,« she continues.

(Un)ethical investments

The university states that the new number is not the total amount. The University Post still has no numbers from two of the university’s four asset managers, so the amount may be even higher than the DKK 8.9 million stated.

»The companies profit from supporting and maintaining illegal settlements. In the and eDreams cases by offering overnight stays in Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land. In this way, they contribute to the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem,« says Olivia Zart who is also active in Students Against the Occupation.

»We believe that this has only become more clear with the last two months’ renewed focus. UCPH should not invest in companies operating in Israeli settlements. There can no longer be any doubts about the consequences of the settlements for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem,« says Olivia Zart, who is a student of sociology.

Grey area or not?

According to a memo to the Board from March 2022, the UCPH ethical principles in investment policy are based on current legislation in the area and on the Danish University Act.

This means that UCPH commits to ensuring that investments comply with a so-called best practice procedure. In continuation of this, the university has neither the resources nor the expertise to independently ensure that the investments are in accordance with the investment industry’s general practices, according to the memo.

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UCPH has therefore decided that the day-to-day supervision of compliance with the ethical guidelines is done by asset managers Nykredit and SEB.

The asset managers are responsible for ensuring that the UCPH portfolios have been invested correctly, have to document that they comply with all best practice requirements for ethical investment, and that they continuously develop their evaluations to ensure that UCPH adheres to applicable guidelines.

But this is not a satisfactory practice, according to Students against the Occupation.

»If UCPH can at the same time invest in companies with activities in Israeli settlements that are declared illegal under international law, and claim that their investments comply with the university’s own ethical investment policy, then there are grey areas in this policy. These are the areas that we demand that UCPH deals with,« says Zart.

»We believe that the investment policy should be revised so that UCPH no longer invests in companies operating in Israeli settlements. This is a requirement that management must make of the asset managers who invest on behalf of the university,« says Olivia Zart.

University of Copenhagen’s finance section also writes in the memo that it will not be influenced by individuals’ attitudes or subjective motives when assessing the legitimacy of specific investments.

UCPH: Difficult to invest ethically

The University Post has contacted the management at the University of Copenhagen, who have agreed to answer specific questions in relation to the new revelations:

The new figures show that UCPH has not listened to Student Against the Occupation’s call to ensure that UCPH does not invest in companies that appear on the UN list. Now the amount has grown to approximately nine million. Does UCPH have a problem explaining this?

»No. Every time specific companies have been criticized in public, the asset managers of UCPH have reported back to us that the companies mentioned comply with international conventions. The screenings are based on recognised methods and classifications. But it is clear that global companies often have very complex portfolios. Sales of goods with, for example, electronic components can be difficult to track in relation to how the product is used and so on. We recognize that it is difficult to invest ethically, and that you must always look carefully,« deputy director Jasper Steen Winkel writes in a response.

Does UCPH still have confidence that the asset managers managing the investments adhere to the UCPH ethical investment policy and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

We try to position the university’s evolving liquidity as sensibly and responsibly as possible

Deputy Director Jasper Steen Winkel

»Yes. The University of Copenhagen takes ethical investments and good asset management very seriously. We try to position the university’s evolving liquidity as sensibly and responsibly as possible. There are, of course, many considerations and pitfalls. But the asset managers that UCPH works with are some of the most recognised in the market. Nykredit Invest has no investments in illegal settlements. There are investments in some global companies that include legal business activities, also in Palestine. The premise is always that the company does not contribute to working against UN decisions, and this includes respecting human rights.«

Has it led to reflection by management on how it will invest in the future so that they are not involved in illegal activities?

»The Board approves a financial risk management strategy every year. So the university is continuously considering whether it can sharpen its ethical investment profile and focus on responsible investments, including human rights, sustainability, etc. And we are aware of the various proposals and input from different parts of the university,« writes Deputy Director Jasper Steen Winkel.

Aalborg University switched strategy

In contrast, Aalborg University (AAU) withdrew similar investments in 2021 after it emerged that the university had investments in companies active in the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Back then university director Søren Lind Christensen said that:

»Our asset managers reckoned that our investments were in a grey area in terms of complying with the UN regulations PRI. We made it clear to them that this was not enough. It needs to be 100 percent in order. We simply do not need investment in the companies concerned. So we are on our way out of them,« Søren Lind Christiansen said then to the Arbejderen news media.

In a question from an MP in March 2022, the former Minister for Higher Education and Science, Jesper Petersen, was asked how he will ensure that Danish universities live up to their international obligations described in the UN guidelines on business and human rights. The question was prompted by revelations about UCPH an investment portfolio with activities in illegal settlements.

The minister replied that the government advises against any engagements or activities that strengthen the settlements:

»The [Danish, ed.] government’s policy is that Israel should cease its settlement policy. The settlements are illegal under international law and directly contravene EU policy and UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The government advises against any engagements or activities that strengthen the settlements: We are doing this as a consequence of the Israeli settlement policy and in accordance with proposals up for adoption,« Jesper Petersen said then.