Total Pageviews

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream Endorsement Deal Conflicts With Charity Work, Aid Group Says

The international aid and development group Oxfam has distanced itself from one of its own global ambassadors, the actress Scarlett Johansson, since she agreed to become the face of SodaStream, an Israeli firm that makes products in a settlement built on West Bank territory Israel has occupied since 1967.

In a statement quietly added Wednesday to a web page on Ms. Johansson’s work for the charity, Oxfam said that while it “respects the independence of our ambassadors,” the group also “believes that businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.” For that reason, the statement concluded, “We have made our concerns known to Ms. Johansson and we are now engaged in a dialogue on these important issues.”

The charity’s response came after more than a week of pressure from activists seeking to end Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank through a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, known as B.D.S., modeled on the 1980s movement that helped undermine international acquiescence to apartheid in South Africa.

To spread their message, the activists appropriated and reworked images of Ms. Johansson posted online by SodaStream, showing her on the set of a new commercial for the company, scheduled for broadcast during next week’s Super Bowl.

A spokesman for Oxfam, Matt Herrick, told The Lede in an email on Thursday that the aid group has not asked the actress to withdraw from her endorsement deal with SodaStream. The same charity objected in 2009 when another ambassador, the American actress Kristin Davis, agreed to endorse Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics firm which also has a factory in a West Bank settlement. After a wave of negative publicity, Ahava and Ms. Davis quickly parted ways.

As my colleague Stuart Elliot reported this month, “SodaStream is describing the deal with Ms. Johansson as more than an endorsement agreement, calling her a brand ambassador,” and the company’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, described the match as “a love story between a brand with a purpose and a passionate user.”

In a promotional video about the making of the SodaStream commercial scheduled to air during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Ms. Johansson mentioned that she was particularly drawn to the product for ethical reasons â€" that it eliminates the need for plastic soda bottles which contaminate the environment. “My favorite thing about SodaStream,” Ms. Johansson said during the filming of the commercial, “is that I don’t feel guilty when I enjoy beverages at home. I don’t feel like I’m being wasteful.”

A promotional video from SodaStream about the filming of its Super Bowl commercial starring Scarlett Johansson.

SodaStream’s marketing has consistently described its domestic carbonation machines, made in the Maale Adumim settlement’s industrial zone, as an environmentally friendly, ethical alternative for soda lovers.

One promotional video posted on its YouTube channel invites viewers to “Imagine a World Without Bottles,” over images of a polluted planet. Another shows the company’s chief executive with the actress and environmentalist Susan Sarandon at the International Home and Housewares show in Chicago in 2011.

Susan Sarandon with SodaStream’s chief executive, Daniel Birnbaum, in 2011.

Standing with Ms. Sarandon in front of a mass of used bottles and cans, used as the backdrop for the company’s “Eco Speakers Series” at the trade show, Mr. Birnbaum urged every SodaStream owner “to be an evangelist, to be a revolutionary and share this news with your friends and neighbors: that there is a smart way so that we can leave a planet safe and clean for our children.”

Mr. Birnbaum makes a different moral argument for the company in a glowing video report on its West Bank factory posted last year on the YouTube channel of Stand With Us, an Israel advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

“SodaStream: Building Bridges,” a video report on the company’s West Bank factory posted on YouTube by the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us.

In that video, which paints the factory outside Jerusalem as a boon for hundreds of Palestinian workers, Mr. Birnbaum pointed to the mix of Arabs and Jews working side by side as a model of harmonious integration. “All these different people work together and learn to respect each other and celebrate each other’s holidays and families get to know each other,” he said. “At SodaStream we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope.”

The rosy view of the factory was challenged by an account of working conditions at the plant from an unnamed worker published last year by The Electronic Intifada, a website founded by the Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah. The Electronic Intifada’s source claimed that Palestinians working at the factory in the occupied territory do not benefit from labor laws applicable in Israel proper. “They treat us like slaves,” he said. “This has happened many times on the assembly line: when a worker is sick and wants to take sick leave, the supervisor will fire him on the second day. They will not even give him warning or send him to human resources, they will immediately fire him.”

Critics of SodaStream also pointed to an Israeli television report showing that Nabeel Besharat, one of the Palestinian workers featured in the video circulated by Stand With Us, was strip-searched when he traveled to Israel to watch Mr. Birnbaum accept an award from President Shimon Peres.

A video report on SodaStream receiving an award last year from Israel’s president, posted online by activists opposed to trade with firms that make goods in the Israeli occupied West Bank.

Writing about the same plant for the Jewish-American newspaper The Forward, Elisheva Goldberg pointed to less noble reasons for its location on Palestinian land Israel is obliged to withdraw from under the reading of international law on military occupations embraced by most world bodies and governments, including that of the United States. The SodaStream factory, “does exploit the commercial benefits of its location, essentially profiting from occupation,” through tax breaks, cheap rent and the lax enforcement of labor laws that protect workers from long hours and low pay, Ms. Goldberg wrote.

In a report on the industrial zone where the SodaStream factory is located, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz spoke to a Palestinian worker at another plant who said “Israeli law, which should apply here, too, is not being observed.”

The newspaper noted that the settlement’s industrial zone “sits on the seam line between Israel and the Palestinian territories, putting it in Area C, which is under Israeli military and civil control. This means that the Palestinians need permits to work there. As far as the employers are concerned, though, they’re outside the law.”

“This is a no-man’s land,” a spokesman for a Palestinian labor organization told Haaretz. “Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry inspectors don’t enter Area C since it’s not under Israeli sovereignty, but they’re the only ones who can enforce labor laws.” Israeli officials confirmed to the newspaper that “the ministry does not have the authority to enforce the law in” factories built in West Bank settlements.

Perhaps in part because of these favorable economic conditions, Israel’s government, which doles out the tax breaks and cheap rent, estimates that there are now about 600 Israeli-owned factories in West Bank settlements. Along with plants constructed in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, territories also occupied by Israel since 1967, Israeli firms export about $250 million in goods each year that are manufactured on land outside the country’s internationally-recognized borders.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.

Yemen Takes a Step Toward Law Ending Child Marriage

Human Rights Watch report on child marriages in Yemen, posted in Dec. 2013.

Yemen has taken a step toward outlawing child marriages.

After about a year of work on finding a new system of government and to pave the way for general elections in 2014, a national conference of Yemeni political, social and religious groups this week issued its proposals for a new constitution.

They include proposals for freedom of thought, expression, gender equality and women’s rights. And one of the recommendations suggests making it illegal for anyone under 18 to marry.

Under a subheading “Child Marriage,” the proposals for the constitution say the minimum age for either gender to marry is 18, while specifying there will be punishments for anyone transgressing the requirement that girls must be 18.

Belkis Wille, a Human Rights Watch researcher, linked to a copy of the Arabic language report on her Twitter account on Thursday as well as to her statement responding to the development:

Child marriage is a major problem in Yemen, where according to UN and Yemeni government data from 2006, 52 percent of girls are married - often to much older men - before age 18, and 14 percent before 15. If the girls don’t want to marry, their families generally force them. Girls who marry often drop out of school, are more likely to die in childbirth, and face a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse than women who marry at 18 or later. Until now, Yemen has been one of the few countries in the region without any minimum age for marriage.

Ms. Wille and others at the rights organization welcomed the development, while acknowledging there was still much to be done before it takes effect. There were also questions of how well it will be enforced or whether tribal or religious groups will heed the law.

Ms. Wille noted that the constitution must still be drafted and then be made into provisions that will be acceptable to all Yemenis. “Now the heavy lifting begins for Yemen,” she said.

In an email on Thursday, Ms. Wille wrote that a draft law enshrining the minimum age of 18 and criminalizing marriage under that age must be presented to Parliament, scheduled for debate and then subjected to a vote.

“Even if a law is passed, in the governorates where it is common, it will take years of work with the communities in order to end the practice,” she said. “But a law setting an age and criminalizing is a first step, and then a few high profile criminal cases against parents and spouses will be key.”

Attempts have been made before to address the child marriage issue in Yemen, but failed.

In 1999 the Parliament, citing religious grounds, abolished the legal minimum age for marriage for girls and boys, which was then 15. In 2009, a majority in Parliament voted to set 17 as the minimum age, but a group of lawmakers, contending that reinstating a minimum age would be contrary to Islamic law, used a procedure to stall it indefinitely, as Human Rights Watch said in a special report in 2011.

The Associated Press reported in 2010 that a religious decree issued by Yemen’s most influential Muslim leaders declared supporters of that ban on child brides to be apostates.

Human Rights Watch said in its annual report released this week that there could be change, citing some of the horrors that the practice has had on young girls being forced into marriage with mostly much older men. It said the national dialogue presented an important opportunity to secure protection for women and girls’ rights.

“Child marriage remains widespread with doctors and the media reporting the deaths of child brides as young as 8 years old following their wedding night or childbirth,” it said.

In 2008, my colleague, Robert F. Worth, wrote a feature about child marriage in Yemen, quoting a study by Sana University that said that the average age of marriage in Yemen’s rural areas is 12 to 13, and that the country, at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.
The plight of young girls forced into marriage was also documented in a project called Too Young to Wed that took more than a decade of work in Asia, Africa and the Middle East by the American photographer, Stephanie Sinclair.

Yemen was among the countries featured as having a high rate of marriage of girls, as Ms. Sinclair explained in this video.

Stephanie Sinclair, the photographer, speaks about her National Geographic feature on child marriages.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.

Live Video from NASA on 10th Anniversary of Mars Rover Program