UK anti-boycott bill is a win for autocratic regimes everywhere
The British government has introduced a bill to prevent boycotts of Israel and the territories it occupies. The dreadfully titled “Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill” passed its second reading this week.
The British government - in the form of Michael Gove, perhaps one of the most pro-Israel ministers in this government - has falsely framed the bill as an attempt to combat antisemitism. If only; that would be a laudable and needed effort.
In fact, the bill will only serve to stoke community tensions, while regrettably giving antisemites and conspiracy theorists plenty to chew over as Israel is offered a unique special exemption from any attempt at public accountability.
Yet again, the promoters of the bill have misleadingly conflated legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism - a view that is not shared by a number of Jewish groups. There are perfectly legitimate grounds for criticism of Israeli actions, not least at a time of record levels of settlement building, and in a year when Israeli forces have already killed more Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in any year since 2005.
The United Nations, human rights groups and indeed the British government have consistently noted Israel’s routine violations of international law, not least with regards to settlements and annexation of occupied territory (including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem). Palestinians in areas such as the South Hebron Hills, Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah are also threatened with forced displacement.
To seek to disinvest in such circumstances from occupied territory should be encouraged, not condemned. Many argue that Israel should be targeted with such measures until it adheres to international law.
But the bill goes far further than just Israel, preventing divestment from any territory unless the minister directs otherwise. Public bodies, including government departments and universities, will not be able to seek to influence a decision on procurement with “regard to a territorial consideration in a way that would cause a reasonable observer of the decision-making process to conclude that the decision was influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.
The vague term “reasonable observer” is a classic example of how poorly this bill has been drawn up.
Regimes with appalling human rights records around the globe will be delighted with this bill - such as China, where the legislation would ostensibly prevent British authorities from disinvesting because of its treatment of the Uyghurs.
Just as the bill passed its second reading, family members of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a British citizen imprisoned in Egypt for sharing a Facebook post about rights abuses in 2019, were protesting outside the Foreign Office. No public authority would be able to boycott Egypt on account of this and other grave human rights abuses.
Many argue that public bodies, including local government, should be encouraged towards - not prevented from - boycotting regimes with appalling human rights records. Some speakers in the debate correctly pointed out that under this bill, sanctions against apartheid South Africa would never have happened. Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has a long, proud history as a non-violent form of protest against injustice.
One man, Gove, is attempting to seize enormous powers in foreign policy by determining which territories can and cannot be boycotted
The bill also has binding gagging clauses. Although Gove falsely asserted that “it would be problematic if we were to restrict freedom of speech in any way, but the bill does not do that”, Clause 4 does exactly that. It even prohibits a decision-maker from stating if they “would intend to act in such a way were it lawful to do so”.
Legal advice supplied to the Labour Party and others indicates that this could put the UK in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards the right to free expression.
That is not the only international legal consideration. The bill also fails to distinguish, as UN Security Council Resolution 2334 demands, between the sovereign territory of Israel and the territories it occupied in 1967. This is an alarming deviation from longstanding UK policy.
Senior Conservative politicians have acknowledged that the Foreign Office expressed reservations about the bill with regards to the UK’s legal obligations. MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, stated: “The Foreign Office’s own legal advice states that the bill could breach UNSC 2334.”
It is also a power grab. One man, Gove, is attempting to seize enormous powers over foreign policy by determining which territories can and cannot be boycotted. He is not the foreign secretary, a position he has long craved, but the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities. As one senior Conservative MP pointed out, Gove “has had the UK’s foreign policy delegated to his department as well”.
Gove appeared shocked by the opposition to the bill, red-faced and even shouting. One senior Conservative MP told me that he was “agitated”. Some Tories abstained, and often for reasons that had nothing to do with Israel-Palestine.
Central government dictating to local government how they should invest pension funds or carry out procurement has all the hallmarks of a nanny state, which is anathema to Tories. The gagging clauses also run against traditional Tory beliefs. Strangely, Gove himself declared on the BBC just last month that he was a “free speech fundamentalist”.
The Labour Party put down a reasoned amendment to the bill and whipped to abstain on the vote. Any “reasonable observer” might wonder why, given the trenchant criticisms of the bill, Labour would not oppose it outright. As Labour MP and shadow minister Lisa Nandy stated, the bill was “needlessly broad, with sweeping, draconian powers and far-reaching effects”.
But the person who summed up this bill most perfectly was none other than Dame Margaret Hodge. The senior Labour backbencher was in the vanguard of challenging Jeremy Corbyn on antisemitism when he was Labour leader, and thus has huge reserves of credit on this issue.
It is worth quoting Hodge substantively: “They [government ministers] have not done it to support Israel, to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish community, or to show they really care about undermining the BDS movement. They simply want to set a political trap for Labour. By putting their crude party political interests above the public interest, they confirm what voters think about us: that politicians waste time on childish political games rather than trying to make the world a better place. It is that behaviour that leads to a loss of trust.
“The bill is not a considered attempt to bring about peace, provide better security for Israel or respond to the threats posed by BDS. It is about using Jews as a pawn in the government’s political game. To debate the bill on the day that violence has flared up again in the West Bank is a solemn reminder of why this really matters.”
The bill has many hurdles to cross before it becomes law. It may yet get amended out of all recognition, or even thrown into the long grass. Yet the very attempt of a government trying to stymie free speech, local democracy and accountability for the rule of law should terrify us all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.