Boycott campaigns next in the Tories’ authoritarian sights

If this legislation had existed when Margaret Thatcher’s Government opposed the mass movements against Apartheid South Africa, it would have illegalised one of the most effective and well-supported civil society actions in history.”

By Matt Willgress

As the Tory Government gets more and more unpopular- and continues to implement austerity that devastates communities and livelihoods alike – they have also embarked on a major authoritarian shift.

This ongoing – and now years long – crackdown on our rights to resist and to dissent has included the despised Policing Bill, the recent so-called Public Order Bill which has already been used to justify repression of protestors and journalists, the Overseas Operations Bill enabling people to get away with human rights abuses, and the draconian Legislation against our right to strike.

Now yet another chapter in this sorry story is set to be written, with the Government reported to be imminently bringing forward much anticipated “anti-boycott” legislation, which had already been opposed by 46 civil society groups in anticipation of the announcement, who are mobilising in support of the right to boycott and divest.

The opponents of this attack on the right to boycott include a growing and wide range of civil society organisations such as trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, solidarity organisations and others.

In particular, the Government is seeking to take away from public bodies the right 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.

This “anti-boycott” Bill is in line with the last Tory manifesto, which outlined an intention to introduce legislation to prohibit public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycott or divestment campaigns against foreign countries when the Government does not agree.

Of course, many companies who are involved in the abuse of human and workers’ rights, the destruction of our planet, and other illegal and harmful acts in breach of international law are not sanctioned by the UK Government.

If this legislation had existed when Margaret Thatcher’s Government opposed the mass movements against Apartheid South Africa, it would have illegalised one of the most effective and well-supported civil society actions in history. That boycott movement internationally undoubtedly helped hastened the collapse of Apartheid – as recognised by Nelson Mandela himself. And  millions of people and bodies in Britain, including many Labour-held local administrations, were part of that movement.

But this is not the only example one can cite. From bus boycotts against racial segregation, to divestment from fossil fuel companies to arms embargoes against apartheid, boycott, divestment, and sanctions are non-violent campaigns that 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.

The direct nature of this current attack on the international “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) demands of the movements around the world in solidarity with the Palestinian people is obvious, and also particularly odious at this point when Israel’s far-right Government is stepping up its hateful, aggressive agenda of illegal annexation and human rights abuses.

This is exactly the time when public bodies should be deciding not to invest in companies operating in occupied Palestine that are complicit in the gross violation of international law and the human rights of the Palestinian people that take place on a daily basis.

But the nature of the attack stretches far wider than that issue alone, effecting climate activists, all international solidarity campaigns, trade unions and many others – and can clearly be seen as part of the aforementioned assault on our civil liberties and democratic rights.

Furthermore, it is not just a question of supporting BDS being under attack, but whether bodies such as local authorities even have the right to discuss issues like these, and make their own decisions.

The whole Labour movement should be clear that public bodies and democratic institutions should have the right to spend, invest and trade ethically in line with international law and human rights – and stand firm against this draconian, authoritarian and anti-democratic attack.

Featured image: Boycott Apartheid Bus, London, 1989. Photo credit: rahuldlucca under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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