UBC won't support AMS motion on divestment from companies complicit in Palestinian human rights violations, president says

UBC will not support the recent AMS motion that urged the university to divest from companies complicit in Palestinian human rights violations.

In a statement published to the president’s blog on April 12, President Santa Ono wrote that UBC could not support the motion due to UBC’s values of academic freedom and equity, diversity and inclusion.

The motion — which required the AMS to pen a letter condemning “the Israeli state's system of apartheid and its occupation of Palestine” and call on the Board of Governors and UBC to divest from nine companies — passed on March 23 at AMS Council. The motion was proposed by the Divestment Coalition of 20 student groups including the Social Justice Centre (SJC) and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).

Most of the nine companies appear in the UN database for businesses involved in activities that were deemed to be “human rights violations concerns” in a report following an independent international fact-finding mission.

Student unions across Canada have recently passed similar motions on divestment and Palestinian solidarity, according to the McGill Daily.

In his statement, Ono said the issue was a “controversial one,” and UBC had “heard positions on both sides of the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) issue from students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

However, none of the 20 student groups involved in the motion’s development nor the AMS were contacted by the university ahead of the statement’s release, according to SPHR, SJC and the AMS. Hillel and Israel on Campus were also not contacted about the motion.

“We have not contacted UBC on this issue yet, even before the passage of the motion mentioned, so the release of this statement seems premature at this point,“ the AMS wrote in a statement.

Kurt Heinrich, senior director at UBC Media Relations, did not respond to a question on who the university had specifically consulted before releasing this statement. A follow-up email was not responded to by press time.

SJC wrote that “injustice is happening right now,” making this divestment even more essential. This morning, Israeli forces raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, leaving 158 Palestinians injured and hundreds detained.The Associated Press reported that Palestinians threw rocks and Israeli police fired stun grenades on Friday following recent violence that has left both Palestinians and Israelis dead.

“We do not accept the notion that divesting from companies complicit in apartheid, which include weapons manufacturers among others, is ‘controversial,’” SPHR wrote. “It is a simple, principled stance and the right thing to do.”

Additionally, the AMS wrote that it felt the statement potentially misrepresented the motion as it was a motion on divestment from specific companies, not a motion in support of the BDS movement.

Ono wrote in his statement that “positions on complex geo-political issues that protect human rights are best made by guarding academic freedom and freedom of expression in an environment that supports constructive and respectful debate.”

“But constructive and respectful debate cannot occur when members of one group are made to feel personally attacked for their identity or where tolerance and inclusiveness are not fostered in productive discourse.”

At the meeting in which the motion was approved, Israeli and Jewish groups present expressed concern that the motion could lead to antisemitism on campus, and that only one Jewish group was consulted on the motion.

Ono referenced UBC’s “fundamental commitment” to equity, diversity and inclusion and the need to “avoid polarization on the basis of student identity, religion, or political beliefs so that students are safe and free from harassment.”

Ono has spoken out against BDS in the past. In 2014, when he was president at University of Cincinnati, Ono said a boycott of Israeli universities stifled "intellectual freedom."

SJC wrote that it “condemns” Ono’s statement, while SPHR wrote that it was “disappointed but unfazed.”

“Language about ‘tolerance and inclusiveness’ rings completely hollow when Santa Ono comes out in opposition to divesting from companies that are complicit in apartheid and the daily violation of Palestinian human rights,” SJC wrote.

However, Adam Dobrer of Israel on Campus (IOC) said IOC appreciated Ono's statement due to its reference to creating space for dialogue and "an acknowledgement of the fact that a movement like BDS is counterproductive and does not make space for dialogue."

Dobrer said that Ono's statement is in line with the Canadian government's stance on BDS. An April 15, 2021 statement from the Prime Minister's Office writes that Canada will continue "to condemn BDS and any movement that attacks our Israeli friends, Jewish Canadians, and the values we share."

Dobrer said IOC has no issue with the AMS taking a stance on human rights when it comes to UBC's investments, but said they have an issue with the student society singling Israel out.

When asked how this statement aligned with the university’s previous stances against human rights violations, such as in Ukraine, Heinrich wrote that “each global conflict is unique and requires specific consideration in how the university should best respond.”

The AMS expressed concern that ”the language of the statement feels dismissive of the sufferings of Palestinian students on campus.”

“The AMS will continue to work to complete the actions that were specifically outlined in the motion passed at the March 23rd meeting of AMS Council.”

SPHR wrote that this is Palestinian students’ reality.

“Every day, our families, friends and community in Palestine are harmed by the very companies that our university invests in,” SPHR wrote.

“Santa Ono’s statement attempts to hide his hypocrisy behind a thin veil of supposedly caring about student safety and inclusivity, but when it comes to Palestinian rights, that goes out the window.”

This article was updated at 4:15 p.m. on April 19 to include comment from Israel on Campus.

This article was updated at 7 p.m. on April 15 to include comment from the AMS.

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.