Published On: 1st September 2023Categories: General

Paul Heron is a lawyer, socialist and activist. He is the Legal Director and Senior Solicitor at the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC). Here Paul looks into the Government’s ‘Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill, which is of major concern not only to groups such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, but to wider democracy as a whole.

The Government’s ‘Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill,‘ commonly referred to as the anti-boycott bill has just gone through its second reading in Parliament.

The anti-boycott bill: what is it?

The Government is proposing legislation with the clear objective of stopping public bodies such as councils, local government pension funds, and even universities from taking decisions and actions about how they spend their money. It has significant opposition from trade unions, campaign groups, charities, and individuals.

The anti-boycott bill significantly hinders public bodies from making conscious decisions allowing them to follow and comply with international human rights law. This includes limiting independent decision making by public bodies and restricting their right to decide not to invest  in companies implicated in the systematic suppression of Uyghurs by the Chinese government, the commission of crimes of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians by Israeli authorities and companies guilty of mass pollution.

Should the anti-boycott bill be passed as it stands, there is little doubt that it will impact decisions aimed at addressing deforestation, environmental contamination, as well as the mistreatment of children and workers.  However  the feeling of campaigners and trade unions is that the ‘driver’ behind this legislative effort by the Government is to stop initiatives advocating for Palestinian rights.  It comes at the same time as evidence is coming to light of Israeli embassy officials attempting to influence UK court cases.

The anti-boycott bill: why we should oppose it

The anti-boycott bill is set to erode local democracy, curbing the freedom of expression, and undermining peaceful and legitimate campaigns for social and environmental justice.

According to the provisions within the anti-boycott bill those public bodies will be mandated to disregard any “territorial consideration” in a manner that implies disapproval of foreign state conduct on political, economic or moral grounds – section 1(2). This phrasing appears designed to shield individuals and states involved in activities such as human rights violations, ecological harm, or aggressive conflicts. The bill therefore sets itself squarely to  prevent public authorities from making financial allocations or investments that are ethical and/or lawful. The bill proposes that in future such actions can only be undertaken if explicitly sanctioned by the Government. This is undemocratic.

Most people in the UK have genuine concerns regarding human rights and the environment. However, the anti-boycott bill poses a threat to their ability to campaign for public bodies to not invest directly or indirectly over illegal and unethical decisions. Notably, the anti-boycott bill seeks to stop public bodies to adopt ethical decision-making regarding financial decisions and investments. These actions are deeply unpopular with the majority of people in Britain who stand for fairness, decency, human rights, in defence of the environment and who do not want to see their savings or pensions invested in companies who involve themselves in illegal or unethical practices.

Are there any exceptions?

As stated above, section 1(2) of the anti-boycott bill establishes a broad prohibition preventing public bodies from allowing their procurement and investment choices to be swayed by political or moral objections to the actions of foreign nations with regard to a specific “territorial concern.” The term “territorial concern” is clarified as “a consideration primarily associated with a specific foreign region” according to section 1(3).

There are some exceptions. Under clause 3(5), the Secretary of State holds the authority to outline, through regulatory measures, specific countries or territories exempt from this prohibition. Moreover, the Schedule defines entities and functions that are immune to the restriction. The Schedule also lists a series of factors which the decision-maker may take into consideration when making determinations. These factors encompass scenarios involving potential violations of the UK’s international legal commitments, instances of labour-related misconduct, and cases of environmental wrongdoing.

Despite the exemptions mentioned it is specified in clause 2(7) that the Secretary of State is restricted from enacting regulations that would eliminate the prohibition on boycotts, particularly when the conduct of a foreign state pertains to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or the Occupied Golan Heights. To put it differently, public entities are disallowed from considering the behaviour of foreign states concerning these three territories when making any pertinent decisions. This rule stands without any deviations. Any alteration to this regulation necessitates an amendment to the core legislation.

Conclusion

The bill’s impact will be anti-democratic. It centralises decision-making and sets out to stop ordinary people having a say – for instance – about how their local government pension is invested. There is no doubt that a significant Governmental aim is to cut across the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (‘BDS’) movement that has been born as a peaceful action to support and defend the rights of Palestinians.  BDS was initiated by Palestinians, and was directly inspired by the successful economic boycott of Apartheid South Africa.  As Mandela famously said in 1997 

“The United Nations took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system…but we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

The international action to defeat Apartheid in South Africa is one of the most successful international peaceful protest movements in recent history.  This bill seeks to make similar action illegal.  It sets the UK outside of international human rights and humanitarian law It must be opposed.

The Public Interest Law Centre supports the Right to Boycott campaign and its aim to stop this of legislation. It is supported by individuals, trade unions, charities, NGOs, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations. Sign the petition here and say NO to the anti-boycott bill.

Photography: Ash Hayes/Unsplash