Explainer: Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (i.e. The “Anti-BDS Bill”)

By Kazim Ukka (Researcher at the Community Policy Forum)

We were disappointed to learn that our submission to the bill’s parliamentary committee would not be published, despite being submitted in time.

What is BDS?

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement was formally established by a coalition of Palestinian activists in July 2005. According to its website, the Movement “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”. It is modelled on the international boycott of South Africa during the latter half of the twentieth century that culminated in the collapse of Apartheid. By 1988, 162 UK local authorities were engaged in a boycott of South African goods. As such, BDS is a legitimate form of non-violent resistance by which public bodies take procurement and investment decisions based on ethical considerations.

The stated aims of the BDS Movement are:

  1. Ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories, namely the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.
  2. Achieving full and equal rights for the Arab population living in Israel.
  3. Recognising the right to return for Palestinian refugees that were displaced during the creation and expansion of Israel.

It has three core components:

  1. Boycotts of Israeli goods, institutions, and companies (Israeli and international) “engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights”.
  2. Divestment campaigns urging banks, public bodies, and other institutions to cease investments in the Israeli state and in companies involved in Israel’s human rights abuses.
  3. Sanctions campaigns to exert economic and diplomatic pressure on Israel.

Where has the Anti-BDS Bill come from?

While the BDS Movement has attracted considerable support from public figures, religious groups, and civil society organisations worldwide, there are also longstanding attempts to undermine the movement. For example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews argues: “BDS is a divisive strategy that is aimed at striking at the very legitimacy of Israel. It unjustly places sole blame for the conflict and its continuation on Israel, while ignoring the reality that BDS promotes intransigence on both sides, damaging the prospects for peace.” 

However, BDS does not target Israel’s legitimacy; rather, it entails withholding financial aid from those committing human rights abuses in order to pressure Israel to refrain from such abuses and comply with its obligations under international law.

In the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto, the Government pledged to “ban local authorities from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”. This pledge was formalised during the Queen’s Speech at the state opening of Parliament on 10 May 2022, in which Prince Charles (now King Charles III) stated that Government “legislation will prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion”. 

The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill was subsequently tabled in Parliament on 19 June 2023 by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove.

What does the Anti-BDS Bill say?

The bill will “make provision to prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions, subject to certain exceptions; and for connected purposes.” Section 2 of the bill highlights procurement and investment decision(s) by public bodies to which the bill will apply.

In other words, it will bar local councils, universities, and other public bodies from making financial decisions based on the conduct or policy of a foreign government or other public authority, including participating in boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns. Public bodies that are deemed by the enforcement authority to be in contravention of the regulations in the bill may be fined.

The bill includes a provision allowing the Secretary of State to make exceptions for certain countries: “The Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office may, by regulations, specify a country or territory as one in relation to which Section 1 does not apply”. However, such exceptions cannot be applied to a “decision or consideration relating specifically or mainly to (a) Israel, (b) the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or (c) the Occupied Golan Heights.” These are the only countries and territories that are explicitly mentioned throughout the bill’s text.

What are the main problems with the Anti-BDS Bill?

The bill will limit our civil rights and ability to participate in legitimate non-violent democratic engagement. It will also inhibit the UK’s ability to respond to a range of social issues, including human rights abuses, poverty, violence against women and girls, and climate change, to name but a few. 

We summarise some of our concerns with the bill as follows:

  • In its current form, the bill will hinder public advocacy for international human rights causes, including campaigns concerning ongoing genocide, such as that being experienced by Uyghur Muslims. Indeed, a group of Uyghur activists recently wrote to the Government, expressing their opposition to the bill as it “risks undermining efforts to hold the Chinese government to account for their crimes.” While the Government argues that the bill does include a safeguard to allow human rights abuses to be addressed through the provision of the ministerial ability to place exceptions on certain countries (and has already indicated its intention to do so in the case of Ukraine), this places respect for human rights as the exception rather than the rule. Such a stance will severely damage the UK’s international standing as a leader in human rights.
  • According to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the UK’s accompanying action plan, businesses are required to ensure that they comply with their responsibility to “uphold human rights and monitor records of those with whom they have corporate dealings internationally”. The current bill is in opposition to this logic and suggests that public bodies should have lower standards of social responsibility than the private sector.
  • The bill undermines democracy because local authorities will be limited in their capacity to make ethical financial decisions. This is particularly concerning when such decisions are supported by the local electorate, yet the local authority lacks the agency with which to enact them. The power of hundreds of public bodies in relation to such decisions is thereby removed and placed in the hands of a single individual – the Secretary of State – which reduces democratic accountability.
  • The bill will weaken our freedom of speech, especially considering that it contains a provision that would prohibit public bodies from openly stating their theoretical support of divestment were they allowed to enact it. Clause 4 of the bill specifically prevents local decision-makers (individuals such as mayors & councillors) from even expressing a view that they would have taken a decision to divest had it not been for the bill.
  • The bill provides a unique prohibition against democratic scrutiny of Israel, with a prohibition from ministerial intervention to overturn this stance both now and in the future, regardless of the severity of the human rights situation at the time. This exceptional position defies the UK’s responsibilities to uphold human rights, especially in a context where human rights and free speech are under increasing threat in Israel – a threat highlighted by pro-democracy protests that have rocked the country in recent times.
  • The bill’s stance on Israel also includes the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Under UN Security Council resolution 2334, the UK has a responsibility to ensure that its dealings distinguish between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Public bodies will be penalised for complying with this responsibility.
  • Next year, the International Court of Justice will give an opinion on the Israeli government’s transition from occupation to illegal annexation of the West Bank. This bill will hinder the UK from acting upon the court’s opinion if it does find Israel’s activities to be in breach of international law.
  • Despite Michael Gove’s justification for the bill being based on an attempt to combat antisemitism, the bill is opposed by the Union of Jewish Students and a variety of other Jewish and Israeli human rights organisations. While antisemitism should quite rightly be of concern and be tackled across society, these groups have highlighted that this bill will not achieve this aim but will erode our rights to non-violent democratic engagement.
  • Furthermore, advocating for Palestinian rights and BDS does not equate to antisemitism. Israel’s policies and behaviour, including its recent raid of the Jenin refugee camp located in the Occupied West Bank, have come under intense scrutiny from MPs from across the political spectrum during the bill’s passage through Parliament.

Exclusion of Palestinian advocacy voices

The Commons General Committee on the bill heard oral evidence from various stakeholders on Tuesday 5 September and Thursday 7 September 2023. Among those invited to give evidence were the Henry Jackson Society, Conservative Friends of Israel, and UK Lawyers for Israel. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International UK also participated in the hearings, which took place in Portcullis House, Westminster.

However, not a single Palestinian advocacy organisation was invited to give in-person evidence to the committee, including those that have submitted written evidence. The exclusion of pro-Palestinian voices highlights a lack of proper scrutiny of the bill, especially as many of those that were invited to give evidence are overtly opposed to BDS and supportive of the bill. Of these is journalist Melanie Phillips, who at the hearing labelled BDS as “a uniquely evil impulse designed to destroy Israel as a Jewish state”. She has previously written, in a July 2023 article for the Jewish Chronicle, that “there are no good reasons to oppose the boycott bill”. Her position on the bill is unsurprising given her history of anti-Palestinian racism, such as claiming that “the Palestinians constantly spew out medieval and Nazi-themed hatred of Jews”.

Ultimately, the exclusion of pro-Palestinian voices undermines the committee’s purpose as a body responsible for scrutinising the proposed legislation. This will likely heighten civil resistance to the bill, particularly among marginalised voices.

Given a litany of problems with the Anti-BDS Bill, the Community Policy Forum opposes this legislation in its entirety. As such, we urge MPs to vote against it when it returns to the Commons for 3rd reading.

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