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Deutsche Post AGM: DHL under fire from investors over presence in occupied Western Sahara

The issue is a test case for EU’s human rights due diligence law initiative

The presence of German courier and logistics firm DHL in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara was challenged yesterday at the AGM of parent company Deutsche Post, by a group of grassroot shareholders.

Germany’s Association of Ethical Shareholders (Dachverband der Kritischen Aktionärinnen und Aktionäre), in collaboration with NGO Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), questioned DHL’s office in El Aaiuún as filers of a countermotion – a mechanism that allows minority shareholders to voice concerns in proxy documents.

Deutsche Post DHL Group is listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange and is a constituent of the Euro Stoxx 50, the index with some of the largest Eurozone stocks.

Among its major shareholders are the German government, through KfW, which has 20.5% of shares, Norges Bank Investment Management (2.75%), Vanguard (2.35%) and DWS Investments (3% including the UK arm).  

DHL and KfW were not immediately available for comment. Norges Bank declined to comment. RI understands that DWS will add the issue of Western Sahara to its engagements with the company soon. 

In May, WSRW sent a letter to Deutsche Post DHL Group CEO, Frank Appel, inquiring about how the operation in the occupied territory was initiated, whether the UN-recognised representative body of the Sahrawi people (Frente Polisario) was consulted and why El Aaiuún was misrepresented as a Morocan city. 

Some of the questions were answered at the AGM. According to an unofficial translation provided by WSRW, DHL said that El Aaiún is listed in their system under the same country code as Morocco because there is no customs border, and therefore it is served by DHL Express Morocco. 

Deutsche Post said: “With our services through the local agent, we enable the population to participate in the global economy and international exchange. The most important programmes here concern diplomats and the UN mission "MINURSO". We are thus fully in line with our strategic commitment to connect people and to enable them to connect to the world.” 

The company also said it is working on an “independent Declaration of Human Rights Principles” and developing its “Code of Conduct for Suppliers”.

No state has yet recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Often referred to as the last colony in Africa, Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco soon after Spain, the former colonial power, withdrew in 1975 on the back of the UN decolonisation process.

Frente Polisario proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, and fought a war for independence until the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 based on the premise of holding a referendum of self-determination, which has never taken place. More than 170,000 Saharawis live in refugee camps in neighboring Tindouf, Algeria. 

Recent research by the German federal parliament considered Morocco as an occupying power in Western Sahara.    

The issue could emerge more often on the back of the legislative initiative on mandatory human rights due diligence announced by European Commission in April. 

The Due Diligence law is a result of the Commission’s Action Plan, which under the banner of sustainable corporate governance, concluded that there is appetite in the market for company boards to enhance oversight of ESG risks in their supply chains. 

WSRW and Dachverband der Kritischen Aktionärinnen und Aktionäre have this year challenged Western Sahara links in the supply chain of Continental, Heidelberg Cement and Siemens. 

They are currently monitoring the plans of French listed company Voltalia to build a wind farm later this year in occupied territory.