Dozens of groups oppose UK’s anti-divestment bill singling out Israeli boycotts

Areeb Ullah

Middle East Eye  /  June 19, 2023

Unions and pro-Palestinian activists say bill is aimed at stopping local councils showing support for BDS movement and a ‘threat to freedom of expression’.

Dozens of civil society groups have called on the UK government to drop a proposed anti-boycott bill they say is primarily aimed at stopping local councils from supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement opposing Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.

The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill, which was presented to parliament on Monday, would prohibit procurement and investment decisions made by public bodies that are “influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

The bill sets out that the government can “specify a country or territory” for which the bill “does not apply”. But the text of the bill, as reported exclusively by Middle east Eye las t week, explicitly states that such exemptions “may not specify” decisions or considerations “relating specifically or mainly to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or the Occupied Golan Heights”.

In comments announcing the bill on Monday, communities secretary Michael Gove said boycotts of organizations and businesses linked to Israel had led to “appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse”.

The BDS movement describes itself as an “inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia”.

Right to protest

In a joint statement on Monday, major trade unions and pro-Palestine groups described the bill as an affront to freedom of speech and the rights of workers to show support for Palestine and other causes.

“We are concerned that this [bill] would prevent public bodies from deciding not to invest in or procure from companies complicit in the violation of the rights of the Palestinian people,” the statement said.

“We affirm that it is the right of public bodies to do so, and in fact a responsibility to break ties with companies contributing to abuses of rights and violations of international law in occupied Palestine and anywhere else where such acts occur.”

Sharon Graham, head of the Unite union, which represents 1.4 million public sector workers, said the bill was “another assault on workers by a government keen to suppress the right to protest”.

Graham criticized the bill’s targeting of a pension scheme for local government workers.

“It represents the deferred wages of our members, and they have every right to say how they want it invested and to demand divestment from companies complicit in attacks on workers and communities. We strongly oppose this law and will continue in our work to defeat it,” she said. 

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Britain’s largest pro-Palestine group, also condemned the proposed boycott legislation and said it was an attack on freedom of expression in the UK. 

“Boycotting is a legitimate, historically recognized tactic that has been the engine of great leaps forward for social and international justice, such as ending apartheid in South Africa,” said Jamal.

“If passed, this law will have a chilling effect on all campaigns for social and political change, by trying to remove a key tool for peaceful activism, while protecting the profit-making interests of corporations at any social and environmental cost.” 

International law

The head of the Palestinian mission to the UK, Husam Zomlot, called on the UK government to withdraw the legislation, saying: “We are deeply concerned that this has broader implications for Britain’s supposed commitment to the global rule-of-law-based order. We view the proposed legislation as yet another sign that the UK is abdicating its historic responsibility for and direct role in creating the plight of the Palestinian people.” 

He said the bill’s language risked “erasing the distinction” between Israeli-occupied territory and Israel, and jeopardized prospects for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. 

“By providing a cloak of impunity, this bill encourages more violations of international law, including the acquisition of territory by force, the moving of civilian settler populations to occupied territory – a war crime – or land confiscations and home demolitions,” he said.

‘Orwellian doesn’t cut it’

Legal experts from the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) condemned the proposed bill and said it would “be in breach of international law”, as it forces public bodies to engage in the aiding and abetting of war crimes.

Tayab Ali, who heads the ICJP, described the proposed bill as “genuinely nasty” and said it was “designed to foster a culture of fear and silence and create a chilling effect”.

Ali said: “Orwellian doesn’t cut it. There is something truly remarkable about the idea of not only banning people from speaking out in support of BDS, but even banning people from saying they would speak about it if it were lawful. If you take a step back, it is shocking that we’ve reached this point. 

“The bill puts public bodies between a rock and a hard place. If they abide by this new UK law, they’ll be at risk of breaking international law on aiding and abetting crimes in Israel. It’s an absolutely impossible position that the government is forcing on them.”

If the anti-divestment bill passes into law, those who contravene it will be given written notice, followed by potential fines, if there is further failure to comply.

Past attempts

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.

But in a press release on Monday, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities linked boycotts of organizations and businesses affiliated with Israel had led to “community tensions and… a rise in antisemitism”.

Communities minister Michael Gove said: “These campaigns not only undermine the UK’s foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse. That is why we have taken this decisive action to stop these disruptive policies once and for all.”

The department said the bill would not change the UK’s approach to the Middle East peace process or the government’s position on Israeli settlements, which it said are illegal under international law.

The government press release also quoted Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who said the bill would “directly hinder the unnecessary and inappropriate targeting of Israel by local authorities and other public institutions”.

The UK government has attempted on several occasions to introduce a bill that aims to end boycotts of Israel within local government.

In last year’s Queen’s Speech, in which the government announces its program for government, it said it would fulfil a commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019 that it planned to schedule an anti-boycott bill that would stop public bodies from passing legislation to boycott Israeli-made products.

Last year, the UK parliament voted in favour of an amendment banning public sector employees from boycotting Israeli investments within their pension pots. 

In 2016, the UK government attempted to introduce guidance to prevent the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) from being able to divest from companies on ethical grounds. 

But PSC won an initial court victory against that guidance in 2017. The government appealed, and PSC won a second time in 2020 in a case that went to the Supreme Court. Having been defeated in court, the government is now trying to introduce that guidance through primary legislation. 

While the bill was presented to the House of Commons on Monday, it has still to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny in the Commons, the House of Lords, and at the committee stage, and so could be subject to amendments before becoming law.

Areeb Ullah is a journalist for Middle East Eye