The UK government is facing criticism from civil society groups, human rights activists and some MPs over its plans to introduce a bill that would ban public bodies from boycotting foreign countries and British companies that trade with them. The bill, which is expected to be tabled next week, is widely seen as an attempt to stop local councils, universities and other public institutions from supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The BDS movement, which was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organizations, calls for international pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories, respect the rights of Palestinian refugees and grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel. The movement has gained support from various groups around the world, including trade unions, academics, artists and celebrities.
The government claims that the bill is necessary to ensure a consistent approach to foreign policy and to prevent antisemitism. The Cabinet minister responsible for local government, Michael Gove, told the Telegraph that the boycott of goods from Israel leads to “appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse” ⁵. He said: “It is simply wrong that public bodies have been wasting taxpayers’ time and money pursuing their own foreign policy agenda. The UK must have a consistent approach to foreign policy, set by UK government. 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.”
However, critics of the bill argue that it is an attack on freedom of expression and democratic participation. They say that the bill will stifle social and climate justice campaigns and violate the right to non-violent protest. They also point out that the bill will not address the root causes of antisemitism, which are linked to racism, inequality and injustice.
More than 60 civil society groups under the right to boycott umbrella have issued a statement opposing the bill. Ben Jamal, the director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK, said: “With support growing around the world for the call issued by Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the British government seems determined to shield Israel, and companies involved in its occupation, from accountability for its violations of human rights and international law. This bill will weaken campaigns against deforestation, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of children and workers. That is why such a wide range of groups have come together, from trade unions, charities and NGOs, to faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organizations. How can we rely on ministers to uphold ethical standards around the world while they chip away our democratic rights at home?”
The bill has also been condemned by some MPs from different parties. Labour MP Zarah Sultana said: “This Tory government wants to ban public bodies from taking ethical stances on human rights abuses. It’s an outrageous attack on local democracy & free speech. I stand with campaigners who oppose this authoritarian move & will fight for the right to boycott injustice.” Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “This is a shocking assault on local democracy & freedom of expression. Boycotts are a legitimate form of peaceful protest which have a proud history in this country & beyond. The government has no right to dictate what people can & can’t campaign on.”
The bill is likely to face legal challenges as well. Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights (LPHR), a UK-based legal charity that works on issues related to Palestinian human rights, said: “We are deeply concerned by reports that the UK government intends to introduce legislation that would unlawfully restrict public bodies from exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression in relation to human rights issues concerning Israel and Palestine.” LPHR said that it will closely monitor the bill and consider taking legal action if necessary.
The bill is part of a wider trend of anti-BDS legislation in various countries, especially in the US and Europe. Israel has been lobbying hard for such measures, claiming that BDS is a form of antisemitism and a threat to its existence. However, BDS supporters reject these accusations and maintain that their movement is based on universal principles of human rights and international law.