Middle East Eye / September 7, 2023
Campaign groups warn legislation could block divestments from arms trade and fossil fuels and undermine human rights commitments.
The UK government is taking a “dangerous road” by labelling critics of Israel’s human rights record as antisemitic, a parliamentary committee examining a bill that would ban public bodies from supporting the BDS movement has been told.
Giving evidence on Thursday, human rights and environment advocates warned that the proposed legislation could also inhibit divestment from arms companies supplying Gulf states accused of war crimes, and from state-backed fossil fuel companies.
But the committee also heard from newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips who told MPs that a clause in the bill specifically preventing public bodies from supporting boycotts aimed at Israel was necessary because of the “uniquely evil impulse” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill aims to prohibit public bodies, including local councils, universities and public sector pension funds, from making procurement and investment decisions “influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.
The government says the bill is intended to ensure that local authorities and other institutions do not pursue their own foreign policy agendas, but that the bill will also deliver on a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to ban public bodies from supporting campaigns such as BDS.
It argues that support for BDS has contributed to community divisions and antisemitism in the UK.
But critics of the bill warn it risks inflaming community tensions by marginalizing Palestinians and pro-Palestinian advocacy organizations campaigning against Israeli human rights abuses.
Giving evidence on Thursday, Peter Frankental of Amnesty International linked attempts by the government to connect Palestinian activism and BDS to antisemitism to a broader stigmatization of human rights advocacy worldwide.
Frankental told MPs: “There is no reason in principle why any human rights advocate should not advocate for the human rights of Palestinians, or criticise the human rights record of the state of Israel, and they should not be tarred with the brush of racism, of antisemitism. That is a very dangerous road.”
Frankental questioned whether campaigners drawing attention to violations against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar would be accused of being anti-Buddhist, or whether critics of the Indian government would face accusations of being anti-Hindu.
Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said the bill would restrict the ability of public bodies to carry out their own due diligence in line with their responsibilities to adhere with international law and UN human rights commitments.
“Something that is extremely pernicious with the bill is the fact that what it is going to do is have a significant chilling effect on public bodies. It runs a coach and horses through ESG [environment, social and governance] and human rights due diligence,” she said.
Ahmed added that, in decades working as a lawyer, she had “never read a piece of legislation that is as badly worded as this”.
She said the bill, if passed into law, would prevent public bodies from divesting from arms companies selling weapons to countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over concerns they might be used to commit war crimes in Yemen.
The bill was also criticized by Dave Timms, head of political affairs at environmental campaign organization Friends of the Earth, who said it could also block public bodies from divesting from fossil fuel companies such as Saudi Arabia’s Aramco.
‘Meaningful social change’
“This is the state impinging on the activities of civil society organizations who are trying to achieve meaningful social change,” he said.
“This is a direct attack on the ability of civil society to go about the activities that we would consider to be legitimate.”
Thursday’s session heard from a number of critics of the bill following criticism of the committee on Wednesday – as reported by Middle East Eye – after it emerged that no Palestinians or Palestinian advocacy organizations had been asked to give evidence in person.
The committee has heard from a number of organizations and advocacy groups supportive of the bill, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, UK Lawyers for Israel and the Henry Jackson Society.
On Thursday, the committee also heard evidence from Phillips who has publicly backed the bill’s targeting of the BDS movement.
‘Uniquely evil impulse’
Phillips told the committee she agreed with the government’s view of BDS as “a uniquely evil impulse designed to destroy Israel as a Jewish state”, with, she said, repercussions for Jews in the UK.
“Because it is a unique situation it requires a specific exemption,” she said.
The BDS movement aims to end international support for Israel’s “systematic oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”.
Called for by more than 170 Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, the movement has grown and spread worldwide.
It describes itself as an “inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia”.
The committee’s invitation to Phillips was criticized prior to her appearance by Ben Jamal, the head of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who accused her of an “egregious track record of anti-Palestinian racism”.
But Phillips nonetheless was addressed flatteringly by several MPs.
Wayne David, a Labour MP, told her: “I have regularly for many years read your excellent articles for The Times and elsewhere. I understand you feel very strongly about this issue and I personally have gone on record many times in being implacably opposed to the BDS movement.”
George Howarth, also a Labour MP and the chair of the committee, thanked Phillips for her “characteristically forthright responses which have been very helpful”.
He added: “I would simply say in my experience, and I’m sure you share it, it’s as well to take compliments wherever you can get them.”
Simon Hooper is an award-winning journalist