Palestine activists call new anti-boycotts bill an ‘attack on democratic rights’

Protester holds up BDS poster
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The government is pushing a new bill designed to stop public bodies’ involvement in boycott campaigns. Palestinian activists described it as an ‘attack on democratic rights’ and have pledged to fight it.

‘Attack on democratic rights’

On 19 June, the government tabled the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. Middle East Eye reported the bill is aimed at investment decisions:

 made by managers of “local government schemes for which a pension fund is maintained”.

Meanwhile, procurement decisions refer to the purchase of goods, or the procurement of services by public bodies.

Such public bodies include local councils and universities. Although it has a general application, the bill singles out campaigns connected to Palestine and Israel.

Campaign group Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA) said the bill is an “attack on the democratic right of public bodies in the UK to make ethical choices”. And its head of public affairs, Shamiul Joarder, said:

This is a grave attack on our human rights and our ability to defend human rights – not just in Palestine but around the world.

Read on...

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In a press statement, a coalition of 68 groups including FOA and led by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) expanded on the bill’s restrictions:

The bill includes a ‘gagging clause’ restricting the freedom of public authorities to advocate for boycott or even talk about the prohibition – forbidding all those subject to the proposed new law from even stating that they would support taking a moral stance if it were permissible to do so.

A history of trying to repress boycotts

The bill is reminiscent of Thatcher-era attempts to end the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against South Africa. The PSC-led statement also drew comparisons with “disgraced” former US president Donald Trump’s 2019 announcement that the US no longer recognised West Bank settlements as illegal. This is because the bill mentions the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Occupied Golan Heights as “territories that the law categorically protects from [BDS] initiatives”.

The coalition statement also pointed out that the new bill is an attempt to re-introduce previously-defeated legislation. The government tried to stop BDS campaigns affecting local government pensions in 2017. It lost the right to do so in court in 2017. It then lost its appeal against that decision in 2020.

Deeply connected to other crackdowns on our rights

Friends of Al-Aqsa said the bill is part of the Tories‘ “wide-ranging crackdown on the right to expression”. This was echoed by the broader coalition statement:

The anti-boycott bill is part of a range of politically repressive legislation that impedes rights to protest including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the Public Order Act, and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) bill.

At the same time, Unite the Union general secretary Sharon Graham pointed out that:

This is yet another assault on workers by a government keen to suppress the right to protest. The targeting of the Local Government Pension Scheme is particularly outrageous. This is not the government’s money. It represents the deferred wages of our members, and they have every right to say how they want it invested and to demand divestment from companies complicit in attacks on workers and communities.

As a result, the coalition is demanding the government stops pursuing the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. FOA has asked people to contact their local MPs to protect the right to boycott.

Featured image via Takver/Flickr

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