Middle East Eye / June 20, 2023
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies bill would, if enacted, uniquely grant Israel impunity from censure and totally discredit UK claims to uphold human rights and international law.
On Monday 19 June, the UK government published a bill that, if passed, will jettison Britain’s respect for international laws that ban the acquisition of territory by conquest. It would also ignore United Nations rules signed by the UK over a decade ago calling on businesses to ensure their commercial dealings abroad uphold human rights.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill would also uniquely shield human rights abuses by Israel from scrutiny by UK public bodies, giving that country an open-ended impunity that the bill does not apply to any other state in the world.
The bill is due to be debated by the House of Commons in the first week of July. Its stated purpose is “to prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions”.
It means elected local authorities and other public bodies (e.g. universities and pension funds) will be forced to ignore ethical issues when deciding whether or not to invest in or procure services from companies whose overseas business dealings are complicit in human rights and other abuses abroad.
So, in other words: no questioning of companies operating in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine or Myanmar; no scrutiny of companies working with Chinese authorities involved in the persecution of Uyghur Muslims; no objection to business dealings with companies involved in the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia; no concern about the import of goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank.
If passed, the bill will drive a coach and horses through Britain’s compliance with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to which the UK signed up over a decade ago. Both the UN guiding principles and an action plan to implement them published by the UK government itself make clear that businesses have a corporate responsibility to uphold human rights and to monitor records of those with whom they have commercial dealings.
Neither document suggests it is acceptable for businesses to simply look the other way on these issues.
Impunity for Israel
Apparently stung by criticism when it announced its plans over a year ago, the UK government is now saying that people should have no fears that the new bill would outlaw ethical investment action by UK public bodies against genuine human rights abuses abroad.
The “safeguard” proposed is a provision in the bill that will enable ministers to exempt individual countries from the general prohibitions contained in the bill. They are already briefing that such an exemption will be issued in relation to Ukraine.
But why should respect for human rights be the exception rather than the rule for UK public bodies, particularly when the UK’s endorsement of the UN guiding principles requires businesses to uphold those rights as a matter of course in their commercial decisions?
Do ministers seriously believe that public bodies in the UK should have lower standards of corporate social responsibility than those expected of private-sector companies?
But there is an even worse sting in the tail. A clause in the bill explicitly precludes ministers from making any exemption in respect of Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, or the Golan Heights. No minister, now or in the future, would have the power to vary the prohibition on ethical investment decisions by public bodies related to those territories, however serious the human rights situation there may be at the time.
It’s a clause that uniquely grants Israel open-ended impunity. At the very time that thousands of Israelis themselves are taking to the streets every week in protest against the threat posed to democracy by the most extreme government in their country’s history, for UK ministers to so blatantly try to exceptionalize Israel from scrutiny is nothing short of breathtaking.
Not only this, but the government’s bill flies in the face of UN resolutions for which the UK has itself voted, and of international law as a whole.
UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed in 2016, expressly calls on member states to distinguish in their dealings between Israel itself and its activities in the territories it occupies, like its illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. This bill will penalize public authorities that try to comply with the UK’s responsibilities as a permanent member of the Security Council.
A threat to freedom of speech
By expressly including reference to the Golan Heights, meanwhile, the bill ignores the fact that this territory has been formally annexed by Israel – a move that has been explicitly acknowledged as illegal by both the UN and every UK government until now, irrespective of party.
The same applies to East Jerusalem. Indeed, in its statements and actions, the current government of Israel is transforming occupation of the West Bank into illegal annexation too – something on which the International Court of Justice will give an opinion next year.
If passed, this bill will also inhibit the UK from acting on the court’s opinion if it finds that Israel’s ongoing domination of the West Bank and Gaza does indeed break international law.
And if all this was not enough, the bill even threatens freedom of speech as well. It will prohibit members of public bodies from even discussing ethical investment considerations in relation to their dealings with foreign countries.
Indeed, one interpretation of the bill’s clauses suggests it may even become illegal for UK citizens to ask members of a public body to take moral or ethical issues into account when taking commercial decisions.
A pernicious bill
So, this bill is wrong on so many counts. Will it go through?
Any political party that believes in upholding human rights and the rule of international law without fear or favour will have no justification in doing anything other than voting against this dreadful piece of legislation. These are issues that should have personal salience for Keir Starmer as a former human rights lawyer himself.
Of course, ministers will whip Conservative MPs to support the bill and the current parliamentary arithmetic probably means it will get through the Commons. Even so, let us hope that some Conservative MPs who respect international law will follow their consciences and say no.
Public opposition to the bill that has already been expressed by the Union of Jewish Students and other groups should encourage more MPs to vote against it, irrespective of party.
As citizens who remain true to the UK’s respect for human rights, it is vital we lobby our constituency MPs to oppose the bill when it comes to parliament for its second reading debate in a few weeks’ time.
Even if the bill passes the Commons, that will not be the end of the story. There is every chance that the more independently minded House of Lords will – across party lines – give this pernicious and unnecessary bill the mauling it deserves.
Richard Burden is a former Labour Member of Parliament, Shadow Minister and Chair of Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group