Minnesota Battle Over Israeli Bonds

A legal fight is underway in Minnesota over the state’s investment in Israeli bonds that are used to support settlements and other Israeli actions in the West Bank deemed illegal under international law. Sylvia Schwarz, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, explains why she’s demanding the state’s divestiture.

By Sylvia Schwarz

“I do not think this is a radical call,” says Ronnie Barkan, of Boycott From Within (BFW), an Israeli human rights group that advocates boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel until it complies with international law and human rights consensus.

“Simply by investing in the State of Israel, Minnesota inadvertently supports the criminal policies of the State [of Israel], which are detrimental to both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Graffiti on the Palestinian side of Israel's "separation wall" recalls the words of John F. Kennedy in decrying the Berlin Wall with the words in German, "I am a Berliner." (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

Boycott From Within is one of three organizations and 24 individuals listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the State of Minnesota for illegally investing in Israel bonds, bonds which are used to fund projects such as the Separation Wall (ruled illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice) and illegal settlement construction and infrastructure (a violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Minnesota is one of more than 75 state and municipalities which holds Israel bonds. Most of these bonds were purchased in the last decade, when the Development Corporation of Israel made a major sales push.

The Minnesota State Board of Investment (SBI) is a state agency which is charged with investing state retirement and pension funds. The SBI members are Gov. Mark Dayton, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, State Attorney General Lori Swanson and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Boycott From Within members are all Israeli citizens living in Israel. They have publicly and enthusiastically endorsed the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS against Israel to force the state of Israel to comply with international law. For this act of free speech (recognized under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), they face lawsuits and civil penalties under Israel’s recent “anti-boycott law.”

Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign (MN BBC), which also endorses the Palestinian call for BDS, was formed in 2006 in response to that request for international solidarity. Made up of a diverse group of people from varying occupations, histories of activism, and levels of involvement with the Palestine/Israel issue, members of MN BBC all agreed that providing accurate information to the public was a major obstacle in ending Israel’s colonialism and oppression of the Palestinians.

In every respect, the news media, schools and universities, and even culture and entertainment have, until recently, ignored the Palestinian side of the issue. Palestinians, when portrayed in the media at all, have been demonized, equated with terrorists, and dehumanized.

Few stories of Israeli violence against Palestinians are reported in the media, while reports of Palestinian violence against Israelis are repeated over and over again, giving the impression that the latter occur more often than the former. (The UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs website shows accurate statistics. See a report comparing incidents of violence versus the number of reports in the mainstream media.)

Three Main Goals

MN BBC has three main goals. The first is to persuade Minnesota to divest from its Israel bonds investments. The second goal of MN BBC is to educate every Minnesotan about the state’s involvement in the human rights abuses in Palestine. Since every Minnesota taxpayer pays for the SBI’s investments, every Minnesotan is actively involved in the international law violations committed by the Israeli government.

The third goal is to serve as a model for organizations in other states and municipalities that are attempting to divest of Israel bonds. MN BBC is one of the first organizations that have targeted these investments and a vast amount of knowledge and experience has been accumulated within the group.

In early 2011 it became clear to the legal minds in MN BBC that the State Board of Investment had invested in Israel government bonds in violation of Minnesota statutes, which allow investment in government securities of only one foreign country: Canada, and then only with certain restrictions.

Although this seems like an unexciting legal technicality, it is actually a stunning discovery. From available records it appears that the SBI broke the Minnesota law for Israel alone, in order to show solidarity with Israel and to single it out for special favored treatment.

Regardless of the human rights and international law violations that the money buys, regardless of the international community’s disapproval of the financing of these crimes, and regardless of the prohibition under Minnesota’s own statutes, the SBI showed its favoritism towards Israel by its zeal to invest Minnesota taxpayer funds in a clearly illegal enterprise.

Minnesota has trade relationships and commercial partnerships with many other countries, but in no case (until this lawsuit was filed) did the SBI break Minnesota law to invest in non-Canadian foreign government bonds, except for Israel bonds.

Israel defenders often ask why we single out Israel for condemnation. Other countries have equally poor human rights records. Why not decry China’s or Iran’s abuses? But for which other country are our own state’s laws broken to make Minnesota taxpayers complicit in these human rights violations?

We repeatedly demanded that the State Board of Investment divest from Israel bonds on moral and legal grounds but it refused and even purchased more bonds. Because the law prohibits this type of foreign government investment, we filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit has three counts.

The first count states that the investments are illegal according to Minnesota statutes. The second count states that by investing in activities which are clearly illegal according to international law, the State Board of Investment is acting contrary to the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions which state that international treaties and conventions signed and ratified by the United States, like the Geneva Conventions, are laws of the land.

The third count states that these investments expose the SBI and the Minnesota taxpayers and pensioners, who would foot the bill, to lawsuits brought against them by individuals who have been harmed by Israeli policies under the Federal Alien Tort Statute. In other words, the investments are supplying material support for oppression and Minnesota could be liable for these damages.

Money’s Use

It is important to understand how these investments are used. The Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, another plaintiff on the lawsuit, is a direct victim of investments made in Israel Bonds.

Since 2004 the Bil’in Popular Committee, which is comprised of villagers from the West Bank town of Bil’in, has been holding weekly non-violent demonstrations to protest the illegal annexation of the village land by Israel for illegal settlements and an extension of the separation wall.

The annexations began in the early 1980s and now more than 60 percent of Bil’in’s arable land and several water wells have been confiscated to make way for the wall and Israeli settlements. Although the protests are non-violent, they have been met with extreme violence from the Israeli Defense Forces.

Several demonstrators have been killed (including Bassem Abu Rahmah who died when Israelis fired a tear gas canister directly at his chest, and his sister, Jawaher, who died from inhalation of tear gas). Many injuries have resulted from IDF violent responses to these non-violent protests, and many people, including children, have been arrested and held without charge or trial in “administrative detention.”

The confiscation of Palestinian land and resources and the movement of Israeli civilians into occupied territory are clear violations of international law. This is undisputed and acknowledged by the U.S. State Department and when U.S. loan guarantees were given to Israel between 1992 and 1997 to settle immigrants from the Soviet Union, they were expressly forbidden to be used to fund settlement activity in the West Bank.

When Israel violated this provision, the loan guarantees were cancelled. In other words, the U.S. acknowledges that Israel violates international law.

The Geneva Conventions were signed and ratified by the United States. Under the Supremacy Clause, Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, Minnesota, as well as every other State, is obligated to uphold international treaties ratified by the federal government.

Since the money invested in Israel bonds finances projects which are in violation of a signed and ratified convention, the investments violate both the state’s and the U.S. Constitution. Again, Israel is favored for special treatment. Minnesota would violate a provision of the U.S. Constitution for no other country.

The Fourth Geneva Convention is not the only international law which Israel violates. Israel was admitted to the UN by Resolution 273, which called for the implementation of Resolution 194, including the return of (or compensation to) the 750,000 refugees who had been ethnically cleansed from their homes within Israel between 1947 and 1949.

The call for the return of the refugees has been reaffirmed many times within the U.N. and by human rights organizations. The personal right to return to one’s home is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet Israel has never allowed any of the expelled refugees to return. This is an enormous unhealed personal and national wound for Palestinians which is expressly written into the Israeli system of law (Israel has no constitution) in order to create and maintain a Jewish majority.

A Palestinian Refugee

One of the 750,000 refugees from 1948, and another plaintiff on the MN BBC lawsuit, is my husband, Nadim Shamat. After growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, and attending the American University of Beirut, he immigrated to the United States, where I met him. As a former employee of a state agency, he is a recipient of pension funds managed by the State Board of Investment.

When Nadim was born, in 1945, my maternal grandmother was being liberated from Bergen Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp, after two horrific years of slave labor and starvation. She and my mother, the only survivors in her family, spent the next few years trying to salvage what was left of their former lives and finally made their way to British Columbia, where my parents met.

Understanding the personal and family trauma through which my family lived makes me very aware of the pain of unhealed traumas.

Because of Israel’s racist laws granting special privileges to Jews and denying those privileges to non-Jews, I have the “right” to “return” to Israel any time I want (even though my background is European and the most recent of my ancestors to live there were there at least 2,000 years ago) and take citizenship there.

I can purchase property managed by the Jewish National Fund and held for Jews only. I can live in a Jewish-only community within Israel, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights. But my husband, who was born in Jaffa, who left involuntarily, who lost all his possessions, and the community that would have supported him as he grew up, is not allowed to return to his actual homeland. Before funding Israel’s racist and colonialist policies, Americans should consider the fundamental unfairness of this situation.

Each of the 27 plaintiffs on the lawsuit against the SBI gives a unique reason for the state to divest from Israel bonds (see some of the stories here.) The judge, however, has only to rule on one count in our favor: the mundane legal technicality that foreign government securities are illegal investments according to Minnesota law, and order the SBI to divest from its Israel bonds.

It appears to be such a clear legal case, and if it were any other country, it would never have required a lawsuit. But this is Israel, the country to which the U.S. gives military aid of more than $3 billion per year, more than any other country in the world.

This is Israel, whose international law violations the U.S. upholds and protects in the UN Security Council. This is Israel, to which the I.R.S. grants tax-exempt charitable status to finance ethnic cleansing through the Jewish National Fund . This is Israel, whose prime minister received overwhelming applause and 29 standing ovations in Congress that were, in the words of Thomas Friedman, “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

So this lawsuit, though clear and solid in its legal foundation, might not win in court. Judges are elected in Minnesota. They are subject to the same types of pressures as other elected officials. But we don’t believe that a loss in court is necessarily a setback. We have made enormous strides in educating people around the state and the country about Israel and Palestine.

Our membership is growing and we have even had a presence in the mainstream media. We believe our goals of reaching out across the state and the country and bringing forth the Palestinian side of the story can only be furthered by this effort. We are committed to justice, freedom, and equal rights for all and we believe our efforts will bring Palestinians closer to this goal.

Sylvia Schwarz is a member of the Core Team of Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign and a plaintiff on the lawsuit against the State. She is married with two children and works as an engineer in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

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35 comments on “Minnesota Battle Over Israeli Bonds

  1. Ish Kabibble on said:

    As an often-dismayed supporter of Israel myself, I find this doomed effort inane and objectionable.

    The action taken is a non-democratic tactic which by my reading the writer concedes will probably fail in the courts. It’s fair to say that no player in the Israel/Palestine drama will take even a monent’s notice of this frivolous lawsuit.

    Nothwithstanding its prospects, it is ludicrous for states and municipalities to cherrypick their investment portfolios based on political biases for two reasons: (1) foreign policy is set by the federal government, and (2) the fiduciary responsibily of the the trustess of state and municipal funds is to achieve the highest risk-adjusted returns for their stakeholders. No court is going to subject trutees to backseat drivers like Schwartz who could easily find dozens of “politically incorrect” investment in any portfolio valued in seven figures and up.

    If Schwartz is serious about this, let her try to push this through as a voter-supported mandate. THAT might have some actual impact. (But of course she knows this would be stand an even lesser chance of success than her legal gambit.)

    • Assuming they used tax money all taxpayer of the State do have a right to object.

    • Ricardo on said:

      Every conscientious person with a sense of human dignity and human consideration for the plight of the Palestinian people should condemn the State of Minnesota for investing its people’s tax dollars in a high risk venture such as the Israeli bond market. Here we have two noticeable infractions to say the least.
      1) the investment in the Israeli bond market by the State government of Minnesota perpetuates the racist oppression and repression of the Palestinian people and makes Minnesota an indirect accomplice in the dire and inhumane treatment of those unfortunate but brave people;
      2)the investment in the Israeli bond market by the STate of Minnesota adds to the negative profile that people around the world have of the United States government as a radical supporter of the Zionist State of Israel;
      3)investing in the Israeli bond market goes beyond any economic considerations for a profitabble return. Instead,this investment has racial overtones and is designed for the continuation of racial cleasing policies and the prolongation of Isreal as a Zionist Statethat goes along with the state of mind of the Minnesota State government leaders in charge of making those investment decisions.
      Only the organized efforts of conscientious people can make the State of Minnesota retreat on its evil designs and can make the courts realized that the support of a foreign government such as Israel who has violated international treaties such as the United Nations Human Rights charter and the Geneva Convention should not be permitted under any circumstances.
      Thanks

      • Minessotan on said:

        As you said, “investing in the Israeli bond market goes beyond any economic considerations for a profitable return” and this is the main reason we shouldn’t be putting our savings there. Israeli bonds consistently underperform the market, and for a reason: they are not bought out of a financial calculus, but an ideological commitment. I wonder where do the SBI loyalties lay…

    • rosemerry on said:

      How could you even read this post and remain a supporter of such a criminal illegal and cruel régime?

  2. Bldiigrn on said:

    I was just about to bookmark this site after reading the outstanding essay by Phil Rockstroh. And then you have to go and headline this BS about how Israel is deserving of international condemnation.

    Do you think for one minute that Israel couldn’t wipe her enemies off the face of the earth, as her enemies publicly proclaim they wish to do to Israel? The fact that Israel doesn’t, but instead seeks peaceful solutions that involve minimizing harm to civilians, speaks volumes.

    If Israel had one wish, it would be for Peace. If her neighbors had one wish, it would be death to all Jews.

    Tell me where I have made a factual error here. If you can’t, get some perspective, figure out who your real enemies are, and stop running BS like this.

    There are a lot of Jewish people (most, actually) who are sympathetic to left-wing causes. Leftist websites like this do a masterful job of alienating them for absolutely no good reason.

    • rosemerry on said:

      Factual error 1. Israel wants peace. NO EVIDENCE AT ALL.
      2. Wipe of the face of the earth Misquoted and distorted version of “Régime fading from the pages of time”, itself a quote and a wish, not a threat, let alone an action like Israel’s daily murders.
      3.”Death to all Jews” This paranoid lie ignores the constant non-violent behaviour of demonstrations eg Bilin, the very few injuries to Jews while thousands of Palestinians are killed by the “IDF”, or the Arab Peace Plan, agreed by all the Muslim countries in 2002, accepting Israel at peace IN THE 1967 BORDERS. Israle and the USA do not even discuss this offer.
      4. Leftwing causes? why do those Jews not speak up about the state of Israel, which does not represent the good, caring, humanitarian feelings of Judaism.

    • americangirl on said:

      everyone knows that Israel can’t wipe all its “enemies” off the face of the earth (what an offensive thought!), even with all the $billions and weapons and help from the US, and that is why Israel runs around planting car bombs and killing defenseless Palestinians in a giant cage.
      Israel’s propaganda that everyone wants to eliminate Israel/Jews is a pathetic excuse for a foreign policy that says you want to wipe all your perceived enemies off the map (that is so sick).
      Americans have way better things to do with our money than take part in an ethnic cleansing – which everyone knows is the ONLY thing Israel wants. DIVEST !

  3. Mephistophele on said:

    Schwartz brandishing her family’s suffering under the Nazis as trophy of her righteousness is disgusting.

    If she’s so worried about the suffering of the displaced, she should also sue to boycott Indian investments due to the displacement of millions of Muslims.

    • rosemerry on said:

      Nobody can fight everything. Why don’t you do some of that in India, like Arundhati Roy? btw it is tribal people, not only Muslims, who are displaced in India. The USA helps by supplying India with weapons and nuclear materials illegally, as it does with Israel.
      The point is the Minnesota, and other US, help for illegal ruination of Palestinians’ lives and properties for those who may already, like Schwartz, have a home and citizenship. She is right.

  4. Mad Angel on FB on said:

    Great article Sylvia….. more of America needs to see this kind of patriotism and human rights advocacy …. I posted it to my FB page…I had no idea, thanks :)

    Mad Angel on FB

  5. James Marc Leas on said:

    American Jews have good reason to support this lawsuit in support of Minnesota law that clearly prohibits purchase of bonds from any country other than the US and Canada.

    And American Jews have even more reason to speak out in opposition to all-Jewish settlements in occupied territory in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. And to speak out against such illegal acts as targeted assassinations and house demolitions conducted by the Israeli Government. And the attacks on Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon. And the attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

    Especially American Jews should be leading in demanding that the Israeli Government fully conform to international law, including respecting the equal rights of Palestinians, immediately ending the occupation, and allowing all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and villages.

    There is nothing Jewish about pogroms, violating laws, discriminating against Palestinians, setting up a Jim Crow apartheid state, and issuing threats against other countries. Jewish people have long opposed such repugnant behavior when inflicted against ourselves and others. We must demand that the Israeli Government stop all these acts now and that those political and military officials who are responsible be held to account. And that American officials immediately end collaboration.

  6. greenharper on said:

    This is devastating. Thank you for laying out the applicable Minnesota, U.S., and international law so clearly and in such helpful detail.

    Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is destroying Israel itself, as well. That the United States helps to finance this is illegal and painful.

    Your lawsuit is brilliant. I am sorry only that it is needed — and that it is not, for the reasons you mention, a slam dunk.

  7. Herbert A. Davis, Jr. on said:

    Seems simple enough. If it violates MN law then the investment in Israel should stop.

    Israel is involved in the same ethnic cleansing that our ancestors perpetrated. We want your land for our new country; “move out or we will move you out!”

    It is time support the people who for centuries have had ownership documents to disputed lands. A one state solution under law!

  8. Dixie V on said:

    Great insightful article!

    The Israeli government policies of apartheid and racism cannot be supported by Minnesota investments. Take the politics out of this issue and see – clearly and simply – we cannot be encouraging human rights abuses by investing in it!

  9. Coleen Rowley on said:

    Excellent article! More and more American taxpayers ARE educating themselves about the illegalities being committed by Israel with their tax dollars. Now if only the Minnesota judges do their homework….

  10. Nan Corliss on said:

    As someone who has traveled to this area- whether it be called Palestine or Israel, and seen first hand the discrimination against the people who have a right to live there, this lawsuit has validity and merit. Furthermore, those ney sayers ” How dare we not support Israel” need to realize that an unjustice this great needs to be righted. The problems and hate caused by the displacement of the Palestinians and the policies of apartheid, need to be “justly” solved to realize peace. Imagine what the political tenor in this part of the world could have been, if justice was written into law and Palestinians were treated farely from the beginning. We have talked peace since 1948 and nothing has worked. Isreal keeps gobbling up land, building more illegal settlements, walling off people from jobs, family and friends and creating a more difficult environment in which to create peace. It is time for talk to stop and actions to begin. How much longer can these wrongs exist? How much longer before a culture, a people and their land are destroyed? Whatever way it takes, it is time to act. BDS is a start, a small step in the right direction. It is time for PEACE.

  11. D. J. Scholtz on said:

    Support for a secure Israel alongside the demand for Israel to stop settlements are not mutually exclusive stances. Israel has consistently violated the 4th Geneva Convention regulations with actions that were repeatedly brought before the United Nations Human Relations Committee and the Security Council, resulting in resolutions against Israel. Even as nearly every U.N. member nation, including Britain,France, and Germany, backed the resolutions, the U.S. consistently offered its veto. Plain and simple, the occupation is illegal and it should be illegal for us to provide monetary support so Israel can continue its practices. I applaud Ms Schwartz and her co-plaintiffs for their courage and perseverance.

  12. franc black on said:

    OMG …. next they’ll be drafting you American idiots to do their killing for them … wait a second, they’re probably already doing that too.

    Israel is a failed colony. The atrocities are mounting. The implosion is only a matter of time … and NO my sons will NOT help you kill muslims.

  13. radii on said:

    israel is a dangerous parasite severely harming the US and it is time we rip it from out neck, leash, muzzle and permanently restrain that out-of-control racist, terror-murder mafia state and purge its Fifth Columnists from our ranks … jews yes! zionists no!

  14. Judah The Lion on said:

    Herr Rosemary and the other neonazis medievalist arab state lovers are in ecstasy! Thank goodness there’s an Israel, the only stable democracy in the region to help the US when the arab spring fundamentalists start taking over governments. First you have the dictators Kadafi, Arafat, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Asad, et al bleeding the arab countries dry, then you have the fundamentalists who are throwing themselves back a thousand years. Where’s the outcry when Jews are murdered in France which is getting indundated with radical Muslim refugees from their former colonies? None from you filthy hypocrites.

  15. Pingback: Sylvia Schwarz> Minnesota Battle Over Israeli Bonds « WAMMToday

  16. Paul Merkel on said:

    By all recent and past accounts, Israel and Zionists are leading themselves and others into holocaust(s). Unfortunate that visionary such as Benjamin Franklin’s words ignored: “If you do not expel the Jews from this country, 200 years from now they will be like vampires, and vampires sustain on other people’s blood”.
    Case-in-point: U.S.A. had no enemies in Middle East, until Israel was “created” in 1948.
    Case-in-point: U.S.A. gets most of its petroleum from Canada and Mexico. It is Israel that has pulled united states in the region, for its own illegal terrorism on innocent, while expanding illegal settlements, even though Jewish population world-wide has declined.
    U.S.A. will never be successful, until it addresses this grave cancerous issue. Every country the jews lived in and influenced in the past, they were evicted from that country. This, not because they are smart, but because they managed to economically and morally bankrupt societies.

  17. Paul Merkel on said:

    “As a banker, I am doing God’s work”. CEO Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankenfein. Mr. Blankenfein also publicly stated that he enjoys ripping off his clients. How docile, we can be to the Jews is beyond fathom for some.

  18. Paul Merkel on said:

    Almost all spies in U.S. were Israeli. Most recent, a NASA Scientist.

  19. Paul Merkel on said:

    Recently in 2012, an MIT Jewish student was arrested by the FBI for attempting to have sex with a woman and her two minor daughters. The list is endless and in many categories from diamond trade to slave trade, they are pioneers in bringing misery and profiteering from misery.

  20. Paul Merkel on said:

    On a final thought, if you see the pattern of grave mischievious to terrorist activities by Israel and Zionists, you will not believe 9/11 happened by a bearded man in a cave in timbuktu.

  21. Judah The Lion on said:

    merkel and his ilk are always trying to whitewash the arab lies about Israel. His antisemitic rants are so typical. Jews trying to protect their existence now after the holocaust wiped out 6 million, are cast as a cancer ala hitler and the grand mufti of Jeruselem who was an ally of the nazis.

    • Paul Jr. on said:

      Twisting history for your benefit has been tried hard, very hard by you and your ancestors, but ultimately truth comes out. I don’t hate anyone. I despise Zionism and any principle that says one group is better than the other. Wiping off a country, putting same people in refugee camps, who protected your ancestors for centuries, when Europeans eagerly slaughtered Jews for sport. Shame on you and your like. World has told about you, so what you say will matter less.

  22. Paul Jr. on said:

    Lion is from a cat family, which shows how you exaggerate your own being as a human or an animal. Lies, deception, exaggeration, are some tools you use. If you or anyone scratched the surface of “news” and what’s not in “news” will find that almost every man-made disaster is caused or strongly supported by Jews. Prove this wrong, for your own good.

  23. Paul Jr. on said:

    Case-in-point: “Six million suffering Jews” was actually a number / phrase used before WW II. If you don’t believe this, check newspapers in early 1930′s when a prominent New York Jew published an ad in the newspaper about “Six million suffering Jews” in Europe. This was way before WWII started. Point is, you (Jews) can use any numbers you want, at anytime, much like the wall street predators, and hammer the world to believe in it. And the world is saying: knock it off, or you will be knocked off. Intelligence does not lie in scheming, it lies in listening to the world, and more importantly learning from history so to do the right thing.

  24. Paul Jr. on said:

    Lion does not appeal to logic. And some Lions, when challenged by logic and truth, will resort to trash talk. Self identify check is called for: human or not?

  25. Tommy K on said:

    The gross antisemitism in this article and responses makes me want to buy Israel bonds myself. In fact, I think I will.

  26. Pingback: BDS against Israel fails in Minnesota; BDS is an overall failure | ISRAEL TRIBUNE