Racism on the Rails

Bombardier Abroad

Patterns of Dispossession

by David P. Thomas  

Many people outside of Canada are unfamiliar with Bombardier, but the Montreal-based aerospace and rail transportation behemoth is a global corporation with more than 65,000 employees in 28 countries.

It is also a violator of international law participating in settler-colony projects that dispossess indigenous people, according to David P. Thomas, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada.

In his book Bombardier Abroad, Thomas presents three case studies in how Bombardier, aided by state financing and diplomatic overtures, participated in dispossession schemes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, South Africa and Tibet, all while enjoying a reputation as what the author terms a “good corporate citizen.”

This review focuses on Bombardier’s role in Israel and the West Bank and efforts by human rights activists in Canada to hold the company accountable to international law.

Thomas’ analysis is presented through the lens of settler-colonial studies and in particular the concept of capital accumulation through dispossession, a theoretical framework charted by scholars such as the geographer David Harvey who in turn built on the analytical work of Karl Marx and the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg.

According to this framework, the colonial conquest of land and the concomitant expulsion of the indigenous inhabitants represent the first and overriding priority of the settler-colonial state, enabling it to accumulate the capital necessary for economic development.

The author argues this is an ongoing process against Palestinians, beginning with the expulsion of at least 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba of 1948 and continuing today.

The Israeli Zionist project committed itself to controlling the space and erasing the native population, Thomas writes. Even if it has not resulted in total physical extermination of Palestinians, this attempted erasure constitutes a kind of “cultural genocide,” according to Thomas.

Dispossession through the A1 In his Israel and the West Bank case study, the author argues that Bombardier became complicit in this dispossession when it sought a contract to supply trains for the A1 railway, a high-speed, light-rail transportation system between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. To build the railway, Israel seized land belonging to the Palestinian villages Beit Iksa and Beit Surik, located in the occupied West Bank.

Bombardier eventually won the contract with the aid of the Canadian government and the state agency Export Development Canada. The EDC provides financing to foreign companies as an inducement for them to buy products or services from Canadian companies like Bombardier.

The Canadian government officially takes the stand that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and it recognizes Israel as the occupying power there.

Nevertheless, Canada routinely votes with the United States and a handful of other countries in opposing United Nations resolutions condemning Israel’s settlement activity and other violations of international law. Moreover, successive Canadian governments have condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and have done nothing to oppose Bombardier’s involvement in annexing Palestinian land.

In his discussion of the Hague Regulations, the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Thomas furnishes all the evidence needed to show that the A1 railway violates international law. Article 55 of the Hague Regulations, for example, is generally understood among legal scholars as prohibiting an occupying power from making permanent changes to an occupied territory, as would happen with the construction of a rail line traversing the West Bank.

Similarly, Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the occupying power from destroying property when the act is unrelated to military activity, as has happened with the property seized in the two aforementioned Palestinian villages for a project having nothing to do with Israeli security.

A problematic project Bombardier Abroad lacks a detailed discussion of the campaign launched by Independent Jewish Voices of Canada in late 2015 against Bombardier’s participation in the rail project. A more in-depth account might have strengthened Thomas’ case study.

Nevertheless, the author outlines how future campaigns might benefit from viewing boycott, divestment and sanctions through the lens of settler-colonial studies and in the context of previous campaigns by indigenous and human rights groups both within and outside Canada against extractive mining industries.

Thomas notes that the contradiction between officially espousing adherence to the Fourth Geneva Convention and being involved in a project that annexed occupied land entangled the German national railways (Deutsche Bahn) and eventually caused it to disengage from the A1 project in 2011. Deutsche Bahn pulled out after German transport minister Peter Ramsauer called the A1 project “problematic” from the standpoint of both international law and Germany’s foreign policy.

The state-owned firm also acted in response to complaints from members of Germany’s parliament, German civil society and the Palestinian Authority’s foreign affairs minister.

The fact that the disengagement came from a state-owned enterprise suggests to Thomas that “there may have been a more direct line of accountability” than if Deutsche Bahn had been a private firm. Thomas points to previous attempts in Canada to hold corporations accountable through enacting a law titled Bill C-300: An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries.

The legislation would have cut off aid from government entities such as EDC “if the company was found to be involved in human rights or environmental abuses overseas.” Although the bill failed, the effort did much to educate Canadians about regulating corporate conduct.

Thomas, however, takes this a step further and argues for deriving deeper lessons from David Harvey’s critique of capitalism’s accumulation by dispossession.

Rather than pressure corporations to act more ethically – a concept that often seems in direct conflict with their bottom-line imperative of making a profit – campaigners might work for deeper reforms, such as public control or ownership of enterprises like Bombardier. Or, perhaps more radically, look to indigenous society itself for ideas on how to curb the capitalist profit motive.

Bombardier Abroad offers boycott, divestment and sanctions activists an insightful methodology for how to frame campaigns by exposing settler-colonial practices that deliberately defy a decolonizing world.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.

— Electronic Intifada, Feb. 2019



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