How G4S helps Israel break the Geneva convention

Lisa Nandy calls for the government to take action over G4S' participation in illegal imprisonment.

Since 1967, more than 730,000 Palestinian men, women and children are estimated to have been imprisoned by Israeli military courts. The majority of such prisoners are held in detention facilities inside Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of these prisoners into Israel.

The practical consequence of this violation is that many prisoners, including children, receive either limited or no family visits, due to freedom of movement restrictions. In the case of children, this lack of adequate family contact also violates their rights under article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

According to Israeli Prison Service figures released in June of this year, 85 per cent of Palestinian prisoners, including children, were detained inside Israel. Of 4,706 prisoners, 285 were held in administrative detention, without charge or trial.

The UK government has confirmed that Israel's policy of detaining Palestinians is contrary to Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, that they have raised this with the Israeli government and will continue to do so. In a recent letter to me, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP stated that the FCO is lobbying Israeli authorities for a number of improvements, including a reduction in the number of arrests that occur at night, an end to shackling and the introduction of audio-visual recording of interrogations.

Such diplomatic pressure is important - but what of the British companies that keep Israel's prisons running? According to corporate accountability campaigners, the security giant G4S, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, signed a contract with the Israeli Prison Authority in 2007 to provide services to a number of prisons and detention facilities. Some of these are known to house prisoners transferred from the West Bank.

What's more, the company has installed a central command room in Ofer Prison in the occupied West Bank, which houses a centre where prisoners are tried under military law. Ofer Prison is located in what the Israeli military refers to as the "Seam Zone", which means access for visiting families is highly restricted.

G4S have said that it will exit from all the contracts it holds in the West Bank at the earliest opportunity the contract terms allow. They also say that they have not violated any international laws, which on this specific issue may be correct, given that the Geneva Conventions apply only to Governments that have ratified their terms. Despite these limitations, the UK government can still act - yet it refuses to.

Alastair Burt told me that, despite being aware of G4S's involvement in Israeli prisons, the Foreign Office has not discussed the issue with the company and believes that the "provision of services in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a matter for G4S."

Last June the UK Government co-sponsored a UN resolution that places duties on states to protect against corporate abuse of human rights. The commitment is meaningless if the government refuses to take action in a clear-cut case such as this.

Companies that have been involved in grievous human rights abuse continue to be listed on the London Stock Exchange, seriously damaging the reputation of British business abroad and making it more difficult to compete for those businesses which are trying to uphold high ethical business and trade standards. Such abuse by any corporation is not merely a matter for the company, but for everyone who supports and believes in the basic concept of human rights.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Corporate Responsibility

The Israel/Egypt border. Photograph: Getty Images

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.