“Today is the 45th annual day of International solidarity with the Palestinian people, a day inaugurated by the UN in recognition of the failure of international bodies to ensure that the core rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”Ben Jamal, Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
By Ben Jamal, Palestine Solidarity Campaign
Today is the 45th annual day of International solidarity with the Palestinian people, a day inaugurated by the UN General Assembly in recognition of the failure of international bodies to ensure that the core rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and to return were realised. 45 years later the Palestinian people need and deserve that solidarity more than ever.
The principle of solidarity that underpins internationalism, the recognition of a mutual struggle against injustice that extends beyond national borders, calls not just for empathy but action. At a meeting last month in London, I heard Omar Barghouti the co founder of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, articulate what Palestinians call for when they ask for solidarity. He said “the solidarity we ask for is not an act of charity but a commitment that you ensure you do no harm, which means ending the complicity of your Government, your public bodies and your companies and corporations”.
But at a moment when the international human rights community is reaching a consensus about Israel’s practice of the crime of apartheid, we have a government, that rather than recognising its responsibilities under International Law to end all complicit support for this system of injustice seeks to continue to shield Israel from accountability. In 2019 Boris Johnson’s incoming Government announced its plans to introduce a ‘Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Bill’ (or anti BDS bill). The government has said its intention is to “ban public bodies from conducting their own boycott campaigns against foreign countries or territories” and to stop public bodies from “taking a different approach to the UK government on sanctions and foreign relations.” Similar wording was used in government guidance to Local Government Pension Schemes in 2016, which was successfully challenged through judicial review in 2017 initiated by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and then defeated a second time in 2020 in the Supreme Court after the government appealed the original. Having been defeated in court twice, the government has now decided to implement its unlawful guidance through primary legislation.
The Government, has made clear that its intention is to target in particular any actions by public bodies to divest from companies complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights. In introducing laws to achieve this aim, it is in step with other pro-Israel Governments. Parallel legislation has been introduced in the USA, where several states have passed laws aimed at curbing boycotts or divestment from companies complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Many of these laws have been overturned in court by civil rights organisations and others are currently being challenged.
Whilst the Government’s motivation is rooted in shielding Israel from accountability, the proposed law will have far reaching implications. Other movements who use boycott or divestment tactics will also be impacted. Such legislation could curtail campaigns against corporate involvement in China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims, Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish people, and Saudi Arabia’s coalition leading the bombing of Yemen. Whilst the government has specified that it is concerned with boycotts and divestments outside of UK official sanctions, this sets a low bar for those committed to human rights. For example, UK government sanctions targeting senior officials in Xinjiang do not restrict trade with many of the companies using Uyghur forced labour. Public bodies would be right to hold a higher standard for companies they engage with when presented with evidence showing a company’s involvement in illegal or unethical actions.
Additionally, The precedent set in the US is instructive, where laws introduced to prohibit Boycotts in relation to Israel have been used by States as a template for laws to prohibit campaigns against fossil fuels, gun laws and abortion rights.
It is for this reason that PSC has been able to build large and broad coalition encompassing charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, solidarity organisations and 12 major Trade Unions representing millions of British workers. Together they have launched a campaign to defeat with a statement that asserted “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.” The threat to freedom of expression locates this bill within the wider body of repressive legislation already introduced by a government determined to curb the right to protest and the right to hold governments and companies and corporations to account.
We do not know when this bill will be introduced but we anticipate it arriving in the New Year. It will be opposed by all of those who are genuinely internationalist and who understand the historical importance of boycott, as a set of tactics providing a peaceful way for people to campaign for justice and to pressure regimes, institutions or companies to change abusive, discriminatory, or illegal practices. At a time when the legitimacy of the use of Boycott is gaining new currency in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the bill will be opposed by all of those who believe that the consistent upholding of international law necessitates holding its violators to account whomsoever they be. It will be opposed by all of those who recognise what was recognised by the UN general assembly in 1977 that it is beyond time for the rights of the Palestinian people to be realised.