After backlash, New Orleans City Council to revisit human rights resolution

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Students at McGill University participate in a BDS demonstration in 2016. - PHOTO BY SONIA IONESCU/CREATIVE COMMONS
  • PHOTO BY SONIA IONESCU/CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Students at McGill University participate in a BDS demonstration in 2016.

The New Orleans City Council might reverse course after voting in support of a Jan. 11 resolution ostensibly supporting actions against companies involved with human rights violations. But after pushback from local Jewish groups and statewide politicians, councilmembers said they made a mistake; the resolution was supported by groups joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement protesting Israel’s denial of a Palestinian state.

Councilmembers say they've waded into an international movement without understanding its intent — meanwhile, the issue has attracted significant international press and condemnation from several groups.

The resolution doesn't mention Israel or Palestine, nor does it have any legal teeth, but it acts as a guideline for the Council as it "commits itself to protect, respect, and fulfill the full range of inherent human rights for all, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous other international human rights instruments" and encourages the "creation of a process to review direct investments and contracts for inclusion on, or removal from, the City's list of corporate securities and contractual partners."

The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Anti-Defamation League urged the City Council to reconsider the measure for what they believe is its affiliation with the BDS movement and because it was introduced through the suspension of the council rules without a chance for its opposition to speak against it.

The Jewish Federation said it's "deeply concerned about its unintended consequences relating to Israel and in bolstering the divisive BDS movement," which the group said is rooted in "anti-Semitic components" and "is designed to challenge Israel's economic viability and very right to exist."

Aaron Ahlquist, the Anti-Defamation League's South Central Regional Director, said the Council's "stealth" vote "without any public notice or the opportunity to promote alternative views was both a deep disappointment and a one-sided, undemocratic process."

"Although this measure does not reference BDS or Israel, it is clear from video of the hearing what supporters for this controversial measure thought it was about," Ahlquist said in a statement. "We urge the Council to reconsider the resolution in a transparent and inclusive process with input from a diversity of stakeholders before another vote is taken.”
In a Jan. 12 statement, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said his administration wasn’t aware of the resolution, which he called "ill advised, gratuitous and does not reflect the policy of the City of New Orleans."

Later that day, City Councilmembers LaToya Cantrell, Jared Brossett, James Gray and Jason Williams insisted the resolution is "in keeping with the City of New Orleans' declaration as a Welcoming City in 2015 and its commitment to create a more inclusive, receptive environment.”

But on Jan. 17, Williams expressed his regret in supporting the resolution and said he was not aware of BDS prior to the vote. Williams said the resolution is “inconsistent” with the Council’s position on Israel and he plans to reconsider a vote at the Council’s next meeting Jan. 25.

The resolution is supported by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee (NOPSC), which introduced a draft to council staff in late 2017, and the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), which works to improve conditions at the jail and end mass incarceration.

"OPPRC understands that the mass criminalization of poor people and people of color, and the violent conditions under which they are incarcerated, are human rights crises," the group said in a statement. "We are committed to upholding the rights of all New Orleanians by working to end our city's mass incarceration crisis and supports efforts to ensure that the City of New Orleans divests from companies who violate human rights."

NOPSC argues the resolution mirrors city officials' response to South African Apartheid; BDS maintains that Israel's "settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation over the Palestinian people" only is possible through international support. The movement calls for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well as equal treatment toward Palestinian citizens and the right for Palestinian refugees to return.

The ADL alleges that "many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, including denying the Jewish people the universal right of self-determination, along with many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns, are anti-Semitic."

BDS supporters, however, say its critics have wrongly conflated the movement's call to action in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with anti-Semitism. The City Council drafted a broad ordinance that doesn't include any reference to Israel.

More than 20 states have adopted legislation that bans BDS resolutions. Another dozen states are pending similar legislation. With the resolution's passage, New Orleans became the first city in the south to adopt a measure that syncs with BDS proponents.

"As a Palestinian from New Orleans, I’m asking my city to not turn a blind eye to what's happening and to stand with us to fight for freedom and for human rights," local organizer Jannah Atallah said in a statement.

In December, NOPSC members and supporters gathered outside City Hall and in the council's office to discuss the resolution with staff. Earlier that year, the group called on City Hall and state leaders to adopt a sweeping set of policies protecting immigrant communities — including "human rights investment screens" ensuring local funds don't support human rights violations locally or abroad. Williams stood among supporters on the steps of City Hall. ("All politics is local. We’ve got to make sure this city is the city we want it to be," he told Gambit after that press conference.)

But in a statement this week, Williams said he "did not draft this ordinance or participate in its construction."

Williams also pointed out that the City Council spent "twice as much time" during the morning session of last week's City Council meeting "praising the decades of work and collaboration of the Jewish community here in New Orleans. It was certainly not our intention to close the meeting with an insult. This clearly occurred, and that was unintentional." (In a proclamation, the City Council had recognized the Jewish Federation for its "growth, prosperity, equity and improvement of our citizens.")

In an interview with WWL-TV, District A Councilmember Susan Guidry said the Council should "come up with a resolution that everyone can feel is for our good and is not pointed at anyone.”


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