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Expert: University of Copenhagen claims that it cannot avoid Israel assets 'just a feeble excuse'

Protest action — If they wanted to, the University of Copenhagen could easily avoid investing in companies with activities in the West Bank, says a researcher on sustainable investments at the Copenhagen Business School.

Students against the Occupation have an ongoing protest action on the grass on the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) grounds at CSS campus.

The pro-Palestinian activists have issued six demands to the University of Copenhagen’s management.

If this agenda is important to UCPH, they could easily just take those companies out of the portfolio

Steen Vallentin, researcher in sustainable investments, CBS

One of the demands concerns UCPH investments in companies that are on the UN’s list of companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. Specifically, they are the companies Airbnb, and the online travel company eDreams ODIGEO, in which UCPH has investments of more than DKK 1 million.

READ ALSO: Boost to University of Copenhagen’s controversial West Bank investments

According to the university’s management, the current investment model does not let it avoid investing in companies that are on the UN list.

But Steen Vallentin, associate professor at CBS who researches sustainable investments, gives no credence to this explanation.

»You could do it differently. If this agenda is important to UCPH, they could easily just pick out the companies from the portfolio that they are not interested in investing in,« he says.

Help is available

The University of Copenhagen does not manage its own investments. Instead, they are left to asset managers that, according to UCPH operate »within an ethical investment policy« that is adopted by the Board.

But according to Steen Vallentin, the fact that the university is not directly responsible for its investments does not make it impossible to exclude companies operating in the occupied territories.

»There are lots of investors and external asset managers who can help players like the University of Copenhagen ensure that you get exactly what you want. They can screen for anything and put together products that can meet the various political and ethical requirements that UCPH may have,« says Steen Vallentin.

In April this year, the university’s investments in companies on the UN list were discussed on the Board. But the discussions did not lead to a revision of the UCPH policy.

READ ALSO: Students after University of Copenhagen opts to continue Israel investments: »A huge nothing burger«

»The Board found that there is currently no market for investment products where companies on the UN list are automatically excluded. Unless you decide to stop investing in companies altogether and instead put all asset managed funds in government or mortgage bonds,« the University of Copenhagen wrote on 7 May 2024 on the social media X.

According to Steen Vallentin, however, this is not the whole truth.

This sounds like a feeble excuse

Steen Vallentin, researcher in sustainable investments, CBS

»That you would have to leave the stock market and invest in government bonds instead in order to take this kind of ethical consideration sounds like a feeble excuse,« he says.

Does this mean that you can easily get your external asset managers to avoid investments in companies on the UN list?

»Obviously the more considerations you have to take, the more expensive it can be, but yes, of course you can,« he says.

The University Post tried in vain to get a response to the criticism from the University of Copenhagen management at the time of this article’s original release in Danish 16 May. Management has since 16 May stated that the University of Copenhagen in the future will be more transparent in its investment practices.

Entangled in dilemmas

The UN list of companies operating in the occupied Palestinian territories does not outlaw investments in companies appearing on the list.

What are the camp protesters’ demands?

The University of Copenhagen should:

1) Acknowledge and condemn the ongoing genocide. Call for an immediate ceasefire and the lifting of the siege of Gaza.

2) Withdraw their investments from companies that profit from, or are complicit in, the occupation of Palestine.

3) Offer full financial transparency in relation to their investments.

4) Withdraw from their purchasing agreements with companies that profit from, or are complicit in, the occupation of Palestine.

5) Commit to an academic boycott by terminating all institutional collaboration with Israeli academic institutions.

6) Recognize the plight of their own Palestinian students.

Source: Students Against the Occupation

»It is important to emphasize that the UN cannot set up a list that obliges any Danish investor to follow certain guidelines. These are always recommendations,« says Steen Vallentin.

He explains that the ethical aspect of investments has come into more focus in recent years, but that the issue has been significant for investors since the late 1990s. It is especially when conflicts arise around the world with highly polarized debates that there is a focus on it, says Steen Vallentin.

»It is often pressure from internal stakeholders that puts demands on investments. And that is also the case here,« he says.

READ ALSO: Camp at the University of Copenhagen. What are the facts?

According to the associate professor, the dilemma is that companies, organisations and pension funds are wary of not making too many demands on investments, because they do not want to act as if they had a foreign policy. If, on the other hand, a country or territory is subject to UN or EU sanctions, it is much easier to stop investing in that particular area.

»But when this is not the case, can companies be expected to have their own policies that go beyond the official Danish policy? You may be able to do this in some special cases, but it is a balancing act. It depends on an assessment every now and again. And this differs from investor to investor,« says Steen Vallentin.

According to the associate professor, some political issues are harder for investors to take into account.

»You could, for example, say that if you care about human rights, you should be careful about investing in companies that have operations in China. Then you would have to exclude many companies, and in today’s market it is practically impossible. This is just to show how this area is filled with dilemmas,« says Steen Vallentin.