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Activism — The ‘Students against the Occupation’ group wants the University of Copenhagen to withdraw from its investments in Israeli settlements.
That the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) has investments at all might be news for many of us. UCPH moved into the stock market in 2017 with a DKK 170 million investment.
In 2021, students from the Students against the Occupation organisation were contacted by journalists from the Arbejderen news media. They could reveal that UCPH has investments that the students label as ‘problematic’. Arbejderen revealed that UCPH had invested more than DKK 2 million in companies that have activities in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.
In short: What happened when
2019: Students Against the Occupation was set up when a handful of students wanted to contribute to the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom via a local commitment at the University of Copenhagen.
2021: Arbejderen reveals that UCPH has investments in companies that violate Palestinian human rights.
2022: Students against the Occupation start collecting signatures for a petition. Sikandar Siddique, then a non-attached MP in the Danish parliament, requested official clarification from the government. The response was that companies should avoid investing in activities in the Israeli settlements.
2023: In February, the group delivers 1,297 signatures to the UCPH rector Henrik C. Wegener, calling for the university to withdraw its investments.
»In Students against the Occupation, we find it is deeply disturbing that UCPH invests in companies that have activities in illegal Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank,« says Olivia Zeboun, who is doing her master’s degree in sociology at the University of Copenhagen and is the spokesperson for the group.
The students criticise the fact that the University of Copenhagen’s investments are made in companies that violate Palestinian human rights. This is according to two benchmark lists that have been collated by the UN and independent media Danwatch, so investors can see which companies are in contact with the illegal settlements.
»The companies which UCPH invests in contribute in different ways to the maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements which have been declared illegal by the UN. These settlements have time and time again been condemned by the international community,« says Lærke Baulund, master’s student in political science at UCPH, who has been involved in Students against the Occupation since it started.
Anyone who benefits financially from operating in these settlements is helping facilitate Israel’s illegal project.
Emil Lake, student
The University of Copenhagen has invested DKK 1,034,713 via its asset manager Nykredit, which takes care of the university’s investments.
Students against the Occupation specifically criticise the fact that the investments are in companies which include the production of building machinery and commercial vehicles used for the demolition of Palestinian villages, for the construction of the Israeli separation barrier, and for the delivery of traffic control and telephone lines in illegal settlements.
Amanda Lakuma, who is doing a master’s at Aalborg University and has a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern languages and society from UCPH, points out that UCPH has an ethical investment policy that was adopted by the the Board in 2019. It appears from this that UCPH wants financial partners to base their investment strategy on the UN, OECD, and international human rights conventions.
The investment policy also recommends that financial partners must be approved by screening agencies. Asset managers like Nykredit use the so-called ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) screenings to investigate whether an investment is ethically justifiable. There are no international standards, so it is up to the individual screening agency to assess how they measure up. Because the current guidelines have not been sufficient to ensure that investments in illegal settlements do not take place, Students Against the Occupation believe that UCPH should tighten up their investment policy. Aalborg University has done this, so that their asset managers in the future avoid companies with activities in illegal settlements.
»Anyone who benefits financially from operating in these settlements is helping facilitate Israel’s illegal project. The illegal settlements can only exist and expand, as long as companies are willing to supply hardware and services to them,« says Emil Lake, who is studying education science at UCPH.
The students approached the university with an appeal to drop the controversial investments because, according to the UN, the settlements are illegal and are condemned by the international community. But according to them, this had no effect.
In March 2022, the students got Sikandar Siddique, an independent MP, to ask the former Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen (Social Democrats) about the universities’ investments in the settlements. The Minister for Higher Education and Science replied that the Danish government’s position and guidance is clear on this: Companies should avoid investing in activities in the Israeli settlements.
The political situation
The situation has been serious for a long time, but has become more acute recently. According to UN experts, the numbers of cases of settler violence have been increasing for six years running. More than 600,000 settlers currently live on the West Bank in more than 200 different settlements in what is internationally recognised as Palestinian territory. The Israeli government has recently declared that the Jewish people have an exclusive right to all parts of the country of Israel, including Palestinian territory on the West Bank, and that the government is obligated to promote and develop settlements on the West Bank.
This did not get the University of Copenhagen to withdraw its investments, so the group started a petition in the autumn of 2022 and received 1,297 signatures from students and teaching staff that support the demand.
»In connection with our campaign, we have tried to involve professors at UCPH. A lot of employees are afraid of being a part of it however, because criticism of Israel can erroneously be confused with anti-semitism. And the agendas of [Danish politicians, ed.] Morten Messerschmidt and Henrik Dahl’s on activism in research has unfortunately also led to many people holding themselves back, even though they find the investments unacceptable,« says Emil Lake, a student of education science at UCPH.
In May 2023, the asset management contract will be put out to tender. The students hope that the University of Copenhagen will seize the opportunity to withdraw its controversial investments.
»We hope that UCPH will tighten its investment policy so that investments in settlements do not occur in the future. We also hope that a decision to withdraw the investments will inspire others to revisit their own investments and ensure that they do not invest in companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements,« says Amanda Lakuma. She was active in the group when she was a student at UCPH, and is now studying at Aalborg University.
The UCPH asset managers and their advisers believe that the companies UCPH has invested in do respect human rights.
Deputy Director for Communication Jasper Steen Winkel
Students handed over the 1,297 signatures on 24 February to Rector Henrik C. Wegener. Olivia Zeboun said that he appeared to be attentive to the criticism.
»We found that the rector was willing to listen to our demands, and he promised to take our case to the Board so that they can include it in deliberations on the future requirements for their asset managers. We agreed that the call for tenders is an obvious opportunity for the university to tighten up its investment requirements and to comply with the UN principles on responsible investment.«
The University Post has not been able to get a comment from the rector. Instead we got a written reply from Jasper Steen Winkel, Deputy Director for Communications at the University of Copenhagen:
»UCPH invests via two asset managers who are subject to the University’s own ethical investment policy. The University of Copenhagen’s portfolio excludes investments that can be linked to human rights violations. It is not in conflict with UN decisions to have economic activities in occupied areas, but calls for extra vigilance in relation to breaches of human rights. The UCPH asset managers and their advisers assess that the companies UCPH has invested in do respect human rights. UCPH investments are screened regularly by recognised international agencies to ensure that they continue to live up to the university’s ethical investment policy.«