Can the BDS movement go global?

Mark LeVine discusses widening the scope of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement with Stephen Zunes.

Near a Sahrawi flag a Sahrawi man looks
The occupation of Western Sahara is similar to that of Palestine, says Stephen Zunes [AFP]

Non-violent resistance proponent Professor Stephen Zunes is a leading expert on strategies of resistance, both to foreign occupations and authoritarian regimes more broadly. He spoke with Mark LeVine about his recent research on the possibility of expanding the contemporary Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement beyond the occupied Palestinian territories and whether doing so would help or hurt the Palestinian BDS movement, and global non-violent struggles for freedom more broadly.

Mark LeVine: Your recent article, “Divesting from All Occupations“, has caused something of a stir in academic and activist circles. Can you briefly summarise the main argument and why you have come to it and decided to make it now?

Stephen Zunes: One of the major objections to the BDS movement is that it somehow unfairly “singles out Israel” when there are a large number of other governments which also violate human rights. BDS activists, however, correctly note that there is a much stronger legal case for opposing human rights abuses in territories recognised as being under foreign occupation. For example, international law prohibits, under most circumstances, foreign companies from exploiting natural resources within such territories. Similarly, there are a host of legal issues regarding the export of weapons and other military resources to countries that utilise them in suppressing the rights of those under occupation.

Yet while there are dozens of countries that are major human rights abusers globally, there are only three current cases of what the United Nations and the international community formally recognises as foreign belligerent occupation and/or the denial of self-determination of a recognised non-self-governing territory: Israel and its occupied territories, Morocco and Western Sahara, and Armenia and small strip of Azerbaijani territory. Virtually no major international companies support Armenia’s current occupation. However, a number of companies support Morocco’s ongoing illegal occupation of the nation of Western Sahara in a matter comparable to companies that support the Israeli occupation.

I argue that the Palestinian solidarity struggle would be considerably strengthened if, instead of calling for divestment specifically from companies supporting the Israeli occupation, international activists called for divestment from companies supporting both occupations.

There are certainly other nations that are being repressed and deserve international solidarity, such as Tibet, West Papua, and Chechnya, among others. However, while there are also important international legal principles at stake in these conflicts, particularly in terms of human rights violations, the United Nations recognises these territories as being within the international boundaries of the occupying country and are therefore not, legally speaking, “occupations”. Similarly, regarding Kashmir, while the United Nations has called for the withdrawal of both Pakistani and Indian troops from their respective parts of the territory and has called for a referendum on the fate of the territory, the UN remains ambiguous on its status, with the territory not formally recognised as non-self-governing or under foreign belligerent occupation.

ML: How specifically would this help Palestinians?

SZ: Should the international BDS movement focus its campaign on ending recognised foreign occupations instead of ending the Israeli occupation alone, it would effectively mean just one additional country and only a small number of companies, so it would not take much attention away from the Israeli occupation and Western companies supporting the occupation. More importantly, it would help move the debate away from a divisive pro-Israel vs anti-Israel dichotomy, where people often end up just talking past each other, to where the debate belongs: human rights and international law.

Given the intense polarisation, harsh polemics, and suspicions regarding Israel and Palestine, a campaign based more on universal legal and moral principles against legally recognised occupations, rather than targeting a particular country that has a strong and influential domestic constituency, would be far more effective. Given the suffering of the Palestinian (and Sahrawi) peoples and the complicity of the US government and US corporations in their oppression, they deserve nothing less. It would also help build on calls for other sites of oppression.

ML: You have long been an active critic of the Israeli occupation. Why did you decide now to write a piece arguing that the same tactics applied to Israel should be universalised to other occupations and repressive societies?

SZ: What inspired me to write the article now was in response to the narrow defeat of the divestment initiative at the Presbyterians’ biennial conference, during which a major argument against the measure was that it “singled out Israel”. There has also been growing calls by both civil society groups within occupied Western Sahara and the Sahrawi Diaspora, as well as by the Polisario Front, to challenge the role of foreign companies in the occupation, particularly the illegal exploitation of the country’s national resources. Several examples along these lines can be found here, here, here, and here.

Not only would including all occupations in the divestment campaign help protect the current BDS movement from spurious charges of “anti-Semitism” and broaden its appeal, it would help bring attention to the little-known but important self-determination struggle of the Sahrawi people against the illegal and oppressive Moroccan occupation of their country, which was invaded by the US-backed kingdom in 1975, eight years after the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and other Arab territories.

ML: Your main example, that of Western Sahara, is controversial, particularly (and not surprisingly) among Moroccans. Can you lay out the case for why Western Sahara is in your view a belligerent occupation?

SZ: Actually, it is not particularly controversial within international legal circles, the African Union, or the UN. Western Sahara is recognised by the United Nations and virtually the entire international community as a non-self-governing territory. There have been a number of UNGA resolutions (ie, 34/37(1979)) that are explicit about calling Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara an occupation. Indeed, even where the UN has not used the word “occupation”, it has consistently noted Morocco’s presence at best constitutes a de facto administering power while Spain remains the de jure administering power. Furthermore, as a non-self-governing territory, the people of Western Sahara have the right to choosing their own destiny [see here and here], whether it be independence, incorporation into Morocco, or some other alternative. Despite a series of UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions calling for such a referendum, Morocco has refused to allow it to take place and the kingdom’s allies in the UN Security Council (primarily France and the United States) have blocked the UN from enforcing its mandate. If Morocco’s presence is not legitimate in terms of non-self-governing territories, then it would seem to follow that it is a belligerent occupation of a Spanish administered territory.

Morocco, like Israel, is in violation of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision of the International Court of Justice regarding their occupation. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally moved tens of thousands of settlers into the occupied territory. Morocco, like Israel, engages in gross and systematic human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, has illegally built a separation wall through the occupied territories. Morocco, like Israel, relies on the United States and other Western support to maintain the occupation by rendering the UN powerless to enforce international law. Morocco, like Israel, is able to maintain the occupation in part through the support of multinational corporations.

And just as Palestine is recognised by scores of countries and is a full member of the Arab League, Western Sahara is recognised by scores of countries and is a full member of the African Union. A recognised government that has its territory under the forcible control of a foreign power would certainly be a case of occupation.

ML: Where are the objections coming from?

SZ: The main objections come from supporters of the Moroccan monarchy, who argue that the fealty to the Moroccan sultan pledged by some Sahrawi tribal leaders centuries earlier somehow constitutes sovereignty (a claim the International Court of Justice acknowledged, but ultimately rejected in favour of the right of self-determination). Supporters of the Moroccan occupation also make the claim that those who support independence are simply tools of the Algerian regime (comparable to similar claims that the Palestinians are an “invented people” and that Palestinian groups are simply tools of Arab regimes or Iran), denying the strong indigenous nationalism of the Sahrawi people.

ML: I wrote a similar call for a more universal BDS movement in 2005 when the BDS movement first started, arguing that, for ethical and strategic reasons, all countries should be held to one standard and that scholars, artists and activists who want to boycott Israel should also boycott India, China, Morocco, Turkey, the US, Russia, and the myriad deeply authoritarian countries around the world. Many left-wing activists were uninterested, while Palestinian activists and scholars, however sympathetic, felt Palestinians were in such a lopsided situation against Israel that they couldn’t afford to also boycott other countries such as the US or China. They also argued that no other anti-occupation or pro-democracy movement was presently calling for a BDS style campaign, and that if one did, they would support it. Are you seeing other movements beginning to call for BDS-style campaigns, or were you motivated more out of ethical and strategic concerns of having one standard?

SZ: The BDS movement was originally inspired by the largely successful divestment campaign in the 1980s against corporations doing business in apartheid South Africa. Apartheid was a uniquely horrific system and foreign direct investment was the main way that advanced industrialised countries were propping up that system, since an arms embargo was largely being enforced (except by Israel).

There were some calls for BDS-type tactics around Myanmar during the height of the repression in that country, but it is the Israeli occupation that has been the main focus of such campaigns in recent years. Just as there are problems with focusing solely on Israel, there are problems with becoming too diffuse as well, by including too many other struggles. This is why restricting it to nations recognised as being under an illegal occupation – which effectively means only two countries – provides the moral/legal appeal of universality while not spreading the net too wide.

ML: As we’ve seen from online discussions about your article, there is some opposition by academics and activists to your idea. Why do you think that is? Why does a seemingly obvious idea – holding everyone to the same standard – come up against such opposition?

SZ: Many people are simply unaware of the Western Sahara situation. Some come from autocratic Arab states which support the Moroccan takeover and whose media has reported the Moroccan line pretty consistently for nearly four decades, so they are unfamiliar with more objective analyses. I would guess most are concerned it might take attention away from the Palestinian issue and weaken the BDS movement, though I would argue it would actually strengthen it.

My focus here is simply on opposing occupation. There are many worthy issues with which to become involved and many injustices that deserve to be challenged. And I believe a strong moral case can be made for independence of other nations as well and there is certainly a degree of arbitrariness into which occupations are formally recognised as such and which ones are not. But at least we can start with a case where there is a much clearer legal basis. In the case of Palestine and Western Sahara, we’re talking about a country invading, occupying and colonising another country and repressing its population in direct defiance of a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions and the most basic principles of international law. Indeed, the whole UN system is based on the principle of collective security against such aggression. If the international community cannot effectively address such a clear-cut issue as occupation, what hope is there for addressing any of these other concerns?

ML: How does a boycott campaign relate to the practice of non-violent resistance? Are calls for BDS tied to or dependent on largely non-violent resistance within the territory, or can they succeed in a situation where much of the resistance is violent?

SZ: BDS tactics can work even in cases where there is armed resistance, but it has a much stronger moral appeal – and can therefore attract much wider support – if the resistance is overwhelmingly non-violent. In the case of Western Sahara, the Polisario ended the armed struggle in 1991 in return for the promised referendum on the fate of the territory, a promise Morocco broke. However, instead of returning to war, the locus of the struggle – as with South Africa and Palestine in the 1980s – has shifted from the exiled armed liberation movement to the territory itself. That movement within in the occupied territory, despite occasional rioting, has been overwhelmingly non-violent.

ML: As someone who has spent your career looking at non-violent resistance to oppressive and colonial regimes, how have the uprisings of the last two years in the Arab world changed your views of the best strategies for confronting repressive systems? Could you draw a line between the work of the previous generation of scholars such as Gene Sharp, your own work building on that work, and the present generation of activism and scholarship?

SZ: The Arab uprisings have only reinforced my belief that strategic non-violent action is the most effective means of resistance to illegitimate rule. By embracing extra-legal means, it can challenge the limitations imposed by autocratic regimes to organising for political change, and by embracing non-violent strategies and tactics, it avoids many of the horrific consequences of war and armed revolution. The events of the past two years underscore the importance of not simply relying on massive street demonstrations, but to diversify tactics to include strikes, boycotts, and various decentralised tactics which limit a regime’s ability to engage in mass killings and other forms of repression, yet can still apply pressure to the regime. 

More important than the popular contestation of public space is the withdrawal of consent, of delegitimising the state through massive non-cooperation and making it clear that the people can effectively shut down the economy and other basic activities until their demands are met. Sharp provided an important analytical and theoretical framework based on his previous studies of non-violent resistance, but, in the Arab world and elsewhere, movements are developing new tactics and strategies, providing more material for additional study. Also, as Souad Dajani has observed, non-violent resistance in the Arab world – while validating many of Sharp’s writings on the efficacy of non-violent action – also challenges some of his more pluralistic concepts of power, underlying the need for further theoretical development of the study of strategic non-violent action.

ML: During the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising, activists were wearing “End the Occupation” t-shirts and describing their country as occupied by Mubarak in a similar manner to the Israeli occupation. What are some of the similarities between territorial occupation such as Israel in Palestine, China in Tibet, or India in Kashmir, and repressive systems within countries such as Egypt or Syria?

SZ: In the case of a foreign occupation, popular support for the resistance is usually much stronger, since people are less likely to collaborate with a foreign occupier than an indigenous autocrat. On the other hand, non-violent resistance to autocratic rulers of your own country can sometimes be more effective, since soldiers and other security forces are more likely to refuse orders or to defect when commanded to attack their own people, some of whom may be family and friends. By contrast, racism and concerns of “national security” make such non-cooperation by security forces less likely in the case of an occupation. 

Another problem is that non-violent action only works if a majority of people are on the side of the resistance, which is often not the case within the occupier’s own country. The challenge, then, is to make the occupation more costly and the prospects of giving up the territory more palatable so that it shifts public opinion among the occupier’s population. Using non-violent means denies the occupier the national security or “anti-terrorism” rationale, thereby making withdrawal more acceptable, and encourages greater international solidarity – such as the BDS movements – to make the occupation more costly.

Stephen Zunes, a Professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco, is a prominent critic of US support of the Israeli occupation.  His most recent book is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010)

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.