Civil society critics argue the proposal threatens “freedom of expression, and the ability of public bodies and democratic institutions to spend, invest, and trade ethically in line with international law and human rights.”
Advocacy organizations raised the alarm on Monday as a bill to ban local councils and universities in the United Kingdom from boycotting Israel over human rights abuses was introduced in the U.K. Parliament.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill—tabled by Michael Gove, the Conservative secretary of state for leveling up, housing, and communities—aims to “prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions, subject to certain exceptions.”
While the long-anticipated proposal would allow the U.K. secretary of state or minister for the Cabinet Office to “specify a country or territory” for which the policy does not apply, the bill makes clear that such exceptions cannot relate “specifically or mainly to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, or the occupied Golan Heights.”
Middle East Eye, exclusively reporting on a draft of the bill Friday, noted that “it is the only reference to any specific countries or territories.”
Dozens of U.K. groups—including the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Communication Workers Union, European Legal Support Center, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Now, Greenpeace U.K., Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Liberty, National Union of Students, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, and War on Want—have signed a joint statement of opposition.
“As a group of civil society organizations made up of trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organizations, we advocate for the right of public bodies to decide not to purchase or procure from, or invest in companies involved in human rights abuse, abuse of workers’ rights, destruction of our planet, or any other harmful or illegal acts,” says the coalition’s statement. “We therefore oppose the government’s proposed law to stop public bodies from taking such actions.”
Noting that the bill is meant to block boycotts of Israel, the statement adds: “We are concerned that this 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. 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.”
The statement continues:
From bus boycotts against racial segregation to divestment from fossil fuel companies to arms embargoes against apartheid, boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns have been applied throughout history to put economic, cultural, or political pressure on a regime, institution, or company to force it to change abusive, discriminatory, or illegal policies. If passed, this law will stifle a wide range of campaigns concerned with the arms trade, climate justice, human rights, international law, and international solidarity with oppressed peoples struggling for justice. The proposed law presents a threat to freedom of expression, and the ability of public bodies and democratic institutions to spend, invest and trade ethically in line with international law and human rights.
Along with declaring that “this proposal must be understood in the context of the current government bringing in some of the most repressive legislation we’ve seen in decades,” the coalition’s webpage provides some key global context.
“At least 35 states in the U.S. have passed similar laws, as has Germany, and similar legislation has been proposed in several other European countries,” the site says. “Broadly speaking, many of these laws have targeted the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to pressure Israel to meet its obligations under international law in relation to justice for Palestinians.”
Nearly 70 civil society organisations – including national trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, and human rights groups – are uniting to oppose this bill. https://t.co/AuLz1tnXo9— Friends of the Earth (@friends_earth) June 19, 2023
A growing list of global human rights groups worldwide condemn Israeli policies and actions against Palestinians as apartheid.
While organizations such as the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council are backing the new bill, leaders of 14 Israeli groups sent a letter Monday urging Tory U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and three other top ministers to oppose it.
As the U.K.-based Jewish News reported:
The letter’s authors, who include the directors of Peace Now, the co-directors of Ofek: The Israeli Center for Public Affairs, and the executive director of Combatants for Peace, claimed the bill compromised the U.K.’s current position of “recognizing the illegality of settlements” in the West Bank, and also raised concerns about civil liberty and free speech issues.
They also suggested that rather than preventing antisemitism, the bill was “deeply damaging to the very real fight” against anti-Jewish racism.
Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, also criticized the proposal, according to The National.
“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,” the ambassador warned, as Israel plans to expand illegal settlements.
“We are deeply concerned that this has broader implications for Britain’s supposed commitment to the global rule-of-law-based order,” Zomlot added. “We view the proposed legislation as yet another sign that the U.K. is abdicating its historic responsibility for and direct role in creating the plight of the Palestinian people.”
Meanwhile, Gove said Monday that “it is simply wrong that public bodies have been wasting taxpayers’ time and money pursuing their own foreign policy agenda. The U.K. must have a consistent approach to foreign policy, set by U.K. government.”
The Tory minister also claimed that “these campaigns not only undermine the U.K.’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.”
As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz highlighted:
Local councils in Lancaster, Leicester, and West Dunbartonshire (near Glasgow) have previously voted to divest from Israel, while many student unions across the country have adopted motions in support of the BDS movement that calls to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.
The proposal was first laid out in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election and is the brainchild of Gove and Cabinet Secretary Oliver Dowden. Both of their ministries have already published internal guidelines against such boycotts.
There was no formal debate on the U.K. bill in the House of Commons on Monday, as is standard for a first reading. A second reading, which involves debate, “is already slated for July,” according to Haaretz. After that, there are several more stages before it may become law.
The measure’s introduction in the United Kingdom came as an Israeli forces attack on a West Bank refugee camp killed at least five Palestinians, including a 15-year-old boy, and wounded dozens more—among them, a critically injured teenager who was shot in the head.
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