Campaigners must keep up the pressure following parliamentary votes on Britain’s anti-boycott bill – Mondoweiss


On Monday, July 3, MPs in Britain voted, for the first time, on the government’s controversial anti-boycott bill. Despite winning the vote, allowing the proposal to proceed to the next parliamentary stage, ministers endured a rocky time amidst outspoken opposition, including from within their own Conservative (Tory) Party. Activists and civil society groups should be encouraged by the debate, as it is now clear that a real fight is underway before this bill can reach the statute books.

First mooted in the 2019 Tory manifesto, the anti-boycott bill would prevent public bodies from making ethical choices about spending or investment. If passed, it will ban public authorities, including local councils, universities, public sector pension funds, and cultural institutions, from allowing their financial decisions to be influenced by disapproval of the actions of any foreign state unless the government has granted permission to do so. Furthermore, what has been dubbed a ‘gagging clause’ in the bill will even restrict those who are subject to the rules from openly expressing their support for moral or political boycotts or divestment. For instance, a mayor or other elected representative will no longer be allowed to state publicly that they would personally favor withdrawing public investments from a company engaged in human rights abuses had the law still permitted them to make that choice.

Although it threatens to undermine a wide range of campaigns that use boycott or divestment tactics for progressive causes, the government has one clear target in its sights – the BDS movement.

Although it threatens to undermine a wide range of campaigns that use boycott or divestment tactics for progressive causes, the government has one clear target in its sights – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in support of Palestinian rights. While ministers will retain the power to exempt certain countries from the planned restrictions – for instance, those already subject to British government sanctions – uniquely, no such exception can ever be made with respect to Israel. Alongside the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ and ‘Occupied Golan Heights’, Israel is singled out by name in the proposed law and granted future-proofed protection from public sector boycotts. Alarmingly, because of this provision in the bill, for the first time, a piece of British law will require Israel and the territories that it occupies illegally to be treated in the same way, signalling a departure from decades of international consensus on the illegality of settlements. By doing so, it actively promotes impunity for violations of international law and widely documented discrimination against Palestinians. 

As summarized in a damning legal opinion obtained ahead of the debate by the Labour Party leadership from Richard Hermer KC, this bill will likely have ‘a detrimental impact’ on Britain’s ‘ability to protect and promote human rights overseas’; it is ‘inconsistent with [the country’s] obligations under international law,’ will stifle free speech in a manner incompatible with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and will take away ‘powers long exercised by local authorities’.

Unsurprisingly, these diverse objections animated much of the parliamentary hostility to the bill, with opposition MPs from the Labour Party, Scottish National Party (SNP), and Liberal Democrats also among those who spoke out against this damaging legislation. In the very week that witnessed the biggest Israeli military incursion in the West Bank in two decades, several MPs spoke strongly in support of Palestinian rights, while others highlighted the law’s potential impact on a wide range of campaigns for social and climate justice. Many MPs warned of the bill’s damaging effects on local democracy, freedom of expression, the rights of public sector pension scheme members, academic freedom, and on the powers of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. 

Over the course of the debate, a number of MPs also recalled their own involvement in past boycott movements, including the campaign to end the racist apartheid system in South Africa. During her contribution, Labour MP, Beth Winter, directly quoted a speech by Nelson Mandela on a visit to Britain in 1998, in which he described the part played by local councils and universities as ‘an inspiration to us in our struggle.’ As Richard Hermer’s published legal explanation makes clear: “Had legislation of this nature been in effect in the 1980s it would have rendered it unlawful to refuse to source goods from apartheid South Africa.”

Since Monday, the debate has shown no signs of abating, with Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, describing the bill as “a genuine threat to climate and human rights campaigns,” while a cross-party group signed a parliamentary statement condemning the “suggestion that, alone among peoples facing oppression around the world, Palestinians should be singled out and denied the right to appeal to people of conscience for support.”  It is absolutely right that, for instance, a Kurdish person living in London should have the right to ask her local authority to divest from companies linked to Turkish state violence, so why should that same right be automatically denied to a London-based Palestinian? It’s not just discriminatory, but it also runs counter to Britain’s international legal obligations. These arguments are set to rumble on. The bill will now move to committee stage, with the next vote possibly as soon as September. If passed, it will then proceed to the House of Lords.

Unfortunately, given the size of the government’s majority, winning the argument may not be enough to defeat the bill. But even though it has now passed its first parliamentary hurdle, campaigners outside of Westminster will take heart from the debate. Already, a broad coalition of 70 organizations – including Palestine Solidarity Campaign, national trade unions such as Unite the Union and UNISON, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Liberty, the Quakers, the Methodist Church, the Muslim Association of Britain, and Na’amod: UK Jews Against the Occupation – have come together to issue a joint statement calling on the government to immediately scrap this bill, on opposition parties to vote against it, and on civil society to mobilize in support of the right to boycott in the cause of justice. 

What the debate on Monday night made clear is that there is now very serious opposition in parliament, both to the potentially wide impact of the legislation, on the one hand, and on the other hand, to the singling out of Israel for unique protection from accountability for violations of Palestinian rights. The anti-boycott bill threatens to erode local democracy, restrict freedom of expression, and undermine campaigns to protect human rights and the planet. We must act now to build the growing movement to defend the Right to Boycott.

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