EXCLUSIVE: "The anti-boycott bill would restrict civil liberties..."
Credit must be given to Michael Gove for his exceptional ability to achieve unity. He’s managed to draw together an unlikely cross-section of nearly seventy civil society groups including groups focused on Palestine, Western Sahara, the Uyghurs, pacifism, climate change, religion and even a trade union for bakers. However, it’s slightly less impressive to unify so many groups against you.
And with good reason. With his proposed Anti-boycott Bill, he is on a warpath to undermine local democracy, gag freedom of expression and grant Israel permanent impunity for its international crimes.
The bill, which is now going to Committee Stage, would ban public bodies from making procurement and investment decisions that “are influenced by political or moral disapproval” of foreign states. In practice, this would stop public bodies from spending and investing ethically, preventing them from upholding the values that are enshrined in our democracy.
If passed, the proposed legislation would affect local councils, cultural institutions and universities. The far-reaching bill would impact many areas, but it specifically targets the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to hold Israel accountable for its gross human rights violations.
Cabinet Ministers will have the power to exempt countries from boycotts under the bill based on foreign policy considerations. However, Israel is singled out as the only country that can never be exempted.
This is particularly absurd given the extremism of the new Israeli government. Only six months into their term, government ministers Ben Gvir and Smotrich have boasted about killing 120 Palestinians and wanting to ‘wipe out’ Palestinian villages.
One particularly ominous section, known as the ‘gagging clause’, would prevent employees working in procurement for public bodies from being
allowed to voice their opinions on boycotts. Astoundingly, employees wouldn’t even be able to say that they would hypothetically support boycotts if they were legal.
This attack on individuals isn’t just about policy; it is a genuinely nasty bill, designed to foster a culture of fear and silence to create a chilling effect. It shows this government’s contempt for grassroots movements and the underhand tactics they’re willing to deploy.
This gagging clause blatantly violates people’s rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought and conscience, both of which are protected under the Human Rights Act 1998.
If this bill passes and public bodies abide by it, they’ll be at risk of violating their obligations under international law, domestic policy on business and human rights and possibly even aiding and abetting war crimes.
There is also a glaringly obvious irony here. Critics of the BDS movement, including the government, always argue that it is unfair to single out Israel when there are plenty of other examples of countries with ill-doings.
Of course, ‘singling out’ is precisely what the government is doing with this bill. It uniquely identifies Israel as the only country worthy of everlasting impunity. What exactly makes Israel so special that it should be permanently shielded from boycotts?
This exceptionalism implies two things. Firstly, it suggests that Israel’s current crimes, abhorrent as they are and have been for the last fifty-six years, aren’t ‘bad enough’ to justify boycotts. This is despite reports from successive UN Special Rapporteurs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, concluding that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid.
We’ve been here before. The anti-apartheid boycotts of the 1980s were integral to bringing down South Africa’s apartheid regime and the same tools are crucial in this fight against apartheid too.
Secondly, it implies that the government seems to think that it has a crystal ball. It doesn’t matter what has happened, what is happening or what will happen in the future- if this bill passes, Israel will always be protected from boycotts. Even since this bill was introduced last Summer, so much has changed. Israel can’t be given a permanent carte blanche.
The only thing impunity will achieve is increasing the power imbalance that already exists between Israel and Palestine, so it will simply make Israel even less likely to engage in a peace settlement. The government says this will help community cohesion, but even Conservative MPs worry it will do the exact opposite. It’s just going to drive an even deeper wedge between communities.
The other astonishing thing about the section that singles out Israel refers to ‘Israel’, ‘the occupied Palestinian territories’ and the ‘Golan Heights’. This essentially treats Israel and the territories it illegally occupies in the same way.
This is a surreptitious, yet unprecedented shift from a position the Foreign Office has held for decades to one which blurs the boundaries between Israel and the territories it openly seeks to annex. It is also irreconcilable with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2334, which refers to Israeli settlements as a ‘flagrant violation’ of international law.
It really makes you wonder how the Foreign Office ever agreed to go along with Gove on this. The short answer is: it didn’t. It’s now emerged that Foreign Office lawyers advised that the bill could undermine UNSCR 2334, despite Gove saying the government was unanimously in agreement. The government itself can’t even agree on this bill being a good idea, let alone parliament and let alone the actual population.
For UK foreign policy, this is a worrying, creeping normalisation of violent dispossession. For British civil society, this is another dark step away from freedoms we once took as a given. For Palestinian solidarity, this takes scissors to one of the few threads of support that connects us to Palestinians enduring occupation. This bill must be stopped.
Tayab Ali is a partner and Head of International Law at Bindmans LLP and Director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians.
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