Widespread opposition to the anti-boycott bill


“The principal target of the anti-boycott bill is campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. This week alone, Israel invaded and bombed Palestinian cities and refugee camps, killing at least 15 Palestinians and injuring hundreds more.”

By Peter Leary, Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Last week, the government finally tabled its toxic ‘Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill,’ better known to many as the anti-boycott bill. While it will not prevent individuals from choosing what they purchase in the shops, or even coming together in campaigns like those to pressure companies like Barclays or Puma to change unethical practices, it does have the potential to impact on a wide range of campaigns for social and environmental justice.

Nearly 70 civil society groups, including Unite the Union, UNISON, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Liberty, the Quakers, the Methodist Church, the Muslim Association of Britain and Na’amod: UK Jews Against the Occupation, are calling on the government to scrap this dangerous bill and on opposition parties to vote against it. Labour Party members, alongside progressive activists and movements, must act now to defend the right to boycott.

If passed, the anti-boycott bill will limit the ability of public bodies to make ethical choices about spending and investment. It seeks to ban local councils, universities, cultural institutions, and public-sector pension funds, as well as others, from making financial decisions that are influenced by ‘disapproval’ of the actions of a foreign state. Many people in this country care deeply about human rights and the planet and the anti-boycott bill threatens their ability to insist that public authorities reflect their entirely justified concerns over illegal and unethical practices.

Boycott and divestment campaigns have been used by people around the world to pressure regimes, institutions, or companies to change abusive, discriminatory, or illegal practices. Using these tactics, ordinary women and men have helped to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade, contributed to the struggle for Indian independence, and secured civil rights by challenging entrenched racism in Britain and the USA.

Millions of people in Britain, including local councils, were part of the campaign to boycott and isolate apartheid in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela visited Britian in 1998, he recalled that ‘the ‘knowledge that local authorities…were banning apartheid products…and that the universities…had cut their links – was a great inspiration to us in our struggle.’  

The principal target of the anti-boycott bill is campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. This week alone, Israel invaded and bombed Palestinian cities and refugee camps, killing at least 15 Palestinians and injuring hundreds more. Israeli forces also enabled gangs of armed, illegal Israeli settlers to attack 17 Palestinian villages destroying vehicles and homes, killing one Palestinian and injuring dozens.

With Israel’s system of apartheid growing ever more violent, the British government has a responsibility to stand up for human rights and international law. Instead, it seems determined to shield Israel from accountability, as well as companies complicit in its occupation, by legislating to silence those trying to achieve change through peaceful and democratic means.

The anti-boycott bill even singles out Israel alongside the ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ and ‘Occupied Golan Heights’, by name, as territories that the law explicitly protects from public sector boycotts. By doing so, the bill actively promotes impunity for violations of international law and well-documented discrimination against Palestinians. Despite assertions that its foreign policy is unchanged, for the first time, a piece of British legislation will require Israel and the territories it illegally occupies to be treated in the same way, a departure from decades of international consensus on the illegality of settlements.

This bill is the latest in a string of politically repressive legislation that impedes rights to strike and protest including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the Public Order Act, and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. It includes a draconian ‘gagging clause’ preventing public authorities, for instance, local councillors, from advocating for boycott or even talking about the prohibition – forbidding all those subject to the proposed law from even stating that they would support such a policy if it were legally permissible to do so. This echoes measures introduced in the 1980’s by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government which sought to curb involvement in the boycott of apartheid South Africa as well as previous attempts to gag local government such as the notorious ‘Section 28.’

The anti-boycott bill threatens to erode local democracy, restrict freedom of expression, and undermine campaigns for social and climate justice. That is why we must act together now to say: Defend the Right to Boycott.

  • Peter Leary is a campaigns officer at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). You can follow the PSC on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  • The full Right to Boycott statement and list of signatories can be found here.
  • Sign and share PSC’s petition against the anti-boycott bill here and r ead PSC’s new briefing on the anti-boycott bill here.
  • You can also pass Labour and Palestine and PSC’s model motion in your CLP here and write to your MP to demand that they vote against this damaging law here.
Featured image: protesters hold a demonstration outside the Puma headquarters in London with placards reading: Boycott Puma, proud sponsors of Israeli apartheid. Photo credit: Palestine Solidarity Campaign/Twitter

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