Breaking from Balfour’s colonial legacy – Mondoweiss

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This Monday 17th June 2024, the University of Edinburgh Court rules on a historical decision on whether or not to begin an active and immediate process of divestment from ‘controversial weapons’ complicit in Palestinian dispossession and Israeli settler colonialism, which the University has been entangled with for well over a century.  The ruling of the court could mean immediate divestment from companies like Amazon and Alphabet as their ‘AI solutions’ might be plausibly in use in the mass targeting of civilians in Gaza. This would set a grand precedent and would serve as a concrete step to reducing our institutional complicity in violence against Palestinians.

In 1891, the University of Edinburgh (UoE) appointed Arthur James Balfour (The Earl of Balfour) to the prestigious role of Chancellor, where he would preside until his death in 1930. As one of the longest standing chancellors that came to serve UoE, his appointment coincided with the height of British empire and was entangled with his political career, where he played a decisive role in British domestic and imperial foreign policy, from Ireland to South Africa to Palestine. Among his historical decisions, was the signing of a 67-word promise, “the Balfour Declaration”, which – unlike other wartime statements – would come to be instituted verbatim and legally enshrined under British Mandate (1922-1948), in effect, inaugurating a century-long process of settler colonialism inside of Palestine through means of imperial, colonial and racial governance. 

Balfour’s legacy is remembered today as one explicitly tied to the colonial dispossession of Palestine and dehumanisation of Palestinians through means of authorising (with no legal authority) the partition of Palestine and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians which would be conducted under the British mandate and carried out by direct involvement from the British army and subsequently Zionist militia groups. 

In the final draft of Balfour declaration, Balfour attempted to reconstitute Palestine as a national homeland for Jewish people with full recognition of Jewish political (read: national) rights, while simultaneously denying recognition of Palestine’s indigenous people from rights to self-determination. In leaving the status of Palestinian national rights to self-determination unprotected, this document would negate, by means of ‘juridical erasure’ (Erakat 2019) the category of Palestinians as part of an internationally recognised ‘peoplehood’ thereby installing a new racialized order of dehumanisation enacted through over a century of settler colonial nation-building via ethnic cleansing, occupation, apartheid, siege and genocide perpetuated by the state of Israel against Palestinians.

Since the start of the genocide in Gaza in October, students and staff at the University of Edinburgh have mobilised a divestment movement that has brought to the fore attention to UoE’s historical and ongoing complicity in Israel’s settler colonial project of occupation and dispossession. This divestment campaign, which began at the start of the genocide in Gaza, was led by EUJPS (Edinburgh University Justice for Palestine) and Edinburgh University Kehillah (Society of Jewish students of the University of Edinburgh in solidarity with Palestine), later joined by the SSA (the Student & Staff Assembly), and UoE Alumni carried out over the past eight months. Over the past month, it has grown into a movement that has galvanised support from across the university community. This includes endorsement of divestment by over 600 staff and 13 networks, the overwhelming majority of the student council (with 97% voting in favour of divestment from companies complicit in genocide), the university’s Academic Senate, UCU Edinburgh, the Research and Engagement Working Group (REWG) on Edinburgh’s Historical Links to African Enslavement and Colonialism, and the Jewish University Staff in Scotland. Additionally, EUJPS’s petition for divestment has over 3000 signatures of people from the University community and in the City of Edinburgh, reflecting support for divestment from university’s stakeholders in and around the university.

In the first several months of the campaign, senior members of university management avoided direct engagement with the student and staff community direct requests for divestment from complicity with the dispossession of Palestinians. As a result of the mass mobilisation and steadfast student encampment which lasted over 30 days, including hunger strike actions taken across 42 days by members of the encampment, senior leadership began to meet with delegates of the encampment and divestment team. Their response was to set up what they termed a ‘conflict agnostic’ short life working group that would consider the definitions of armaments and ‘controversial weapons,’ as applied through the university Responsible Investment Policy. As a result of continued student and staff pressure, the working group’s membership was amended to ensure adequate expertise and the university direction committed to include recommendations towards divestment if companies UoE invests in fall within the updated definition of controversial weapons.

However, in the final report sent to University Court members last week, recommendations, insights and crucially, pathways to divestment provided by experts of the divestment team were only partially incorporated. The report excluded essential comments by the staff representatives about why and how immediate divestment based on the expanded definition of controversial weapons is feasible with minimum operational & financial risks for the University Endowment and instead included language that inflated the technical and financial difficulties of divestment, resulting in misleading speculations. In addition, the report excluded the application of the new definition of controversial armaments to two companies which clearly fall under the extended definition of controversial weapons (which includes AI directed lethal targeting) – namely Amazon and Alphabet. This is particularly puzzling because the University Court’s Exceptions Committee already applied a freezing of new purchases of shares on these two companies for the next 3 months. This was a welcomed precautionary measure taken due to the plausible use of the artificial intelligence technology they sell which lacks human rights’ due diligence.

In our final push to counter these paradoxical attempts to exclude mention of Palestine from a process activated by a call to divest from the dispossession of Palestinians, students and staff mobilised this week to ensure excluded expertise was brought back into the hands of University Court members by way of an addendum. Students and staff protested outside of Old College—the building which houses part of the University administration—on Friday, blocking entry into the building. A signed petition of over 2100 students and staff was signed and delivered to senior members of UoE including an e-mail with the following directive:

The court has all the necessary information before it, including a clear definition of LAWS and AI-driven lethal targeting of human subjects, as formulated by the SLWG. This definition can be adopted and applied immediately to the 2 companies in respect of which our holdings have already been frozen at the instigation of the exceptions committee.

Prudence AND Principle requires this action be taken now. It is prudent because the University is truly on notice through documented publicly available information that its direct holdings in Amazon and Alphabet are implicated in the production of controversial weapons in a context where there is a real and emerging risk of crimes against humanity, grave war crimes and genocide. It would be wilfully blind to pretend that such risks are not emerging and that the university through its direct holdings is not also potentially implicated in such activities. Wilful blindness is a failure of prudence because it is a form of recklessness. The court should not be reckless. It should divest.

The 17th of June 2024 is the day of decision after months of contestation.  The path of prudence and principle has been shown to you and all court members. You need to take that path as the leaders and fiduciaries of this University, and, we suggest, as fiduciaries and votaries of a community of research which purports to uphold the fundamental principles of responsible investment, responsible research and responsible global citizenship.

The University of Edinburgh, through its holdings and investments, makes its entire academic community complicit in the potential crimes they are investing in and profiting from. Our studies, our work, and our intellectual properties uphold an institution that is profiting from activities linked to plausible genocide, crimes against humanity, and severe breaches of human rights. These connections undermine the ethical foundations of our academic pursuits and tarnish our reputations as individuals, as a community and the reputation of our institution. 

By continuing these investments in Amazon and Alphabet, which produce AI technology designed for lethal targeting of humans that are currently being used on the Palestinian people, the University not only supports but also benefits from activities that are fundamentally at odds with the values we strive to uphold as scholars and members of a global community committed to justice and human rights.

As a university steeped in the legacy of Balfour, we have an urgent duty to end complicity in a settler colonial project signed off by our former chancellor. Divestment from companies complicit with military occupation, settler colonisation, apartheid, and as the International Court of Justice has acknowledged in its orders, prima facie plausible acts of genocide perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza, is the first tangible institutional step towards historical redress. We, students and staff stand collectively and urge UoE to begin to redress its past by actively divesting from settler colonial economies tied to the dispossession of Palestinian life and land. 

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