‘Orwellian doesn’t cut it’- The Big Brother Anti-boycott Bill that may breach international law 

  • An unprecedented draconian bill will be tabled on Monday 19th June, threatening to prohibit public bodies and their employees from engaging in any boycott deemed to indicate ‘disapproval of foreign state conduct’.
  • The bill is deemed by legal experts at the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians to be in breach of international law, including forcing public bodies to engage in the aiding and abetting of war crimes. 
  • The bill would undermine freedom of expression and freedom of thought and conscience, both protected under UK law in the Human Rights Act 1998.  It is being opposed by a group of nearly 70 civil society organisations called ‘Right to Boycott’.

London, 20 June 2023- On Monday 19th June, an unprecedented new bill was tabled in the House of Commons, which would prohibit public bodies from engaging in any practice when taking investment or procurement decisions which is deemed to indicate ‘disapproval of foreign state conduct’. If passed, the bill would cripple the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought and conscience that are integral to a functioning democracy.  

The controversial bill is being opposed by a group of seventy civil society organisations, including the International Centre of Justice of Palestinians. The group is called Right to Boycott and includes a wide range of organisations including trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations.

The bill is officially entitled the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, but it is better known as the Anti-boycott Bill. The bill is unprecedented in that while some countries can be made exempt, one section specifically protects Israel from exemption, which essentially creates a permanent ban on public authorities ever boycotting Israel.  

Freedom of expression would also be curtailed under the bill. Individuals who work for public bodies will be banned from publishing statements saying they intend to engage in a boycott. In an unprecedented move, they will also be prohibited from saying that they would intend to engage in a boycott even if it were lawful. The move is feared to be a centralising mechanism from the government, designed to undermine the autonomy of local government and universities. 

Legal experts from the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) have concluded that the bill is in violation of international law. This is because public authorities may be forced to engage in business with Israeli settlements, which may amount to aiding and abetting of war crimes, which is illegal under the Rome Statute 1998 of the International Criminal Court. 

If it becomes law, the bill would represent the latest blow to the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of thought and conscience that are integral to a functioning democracy. This bill is the latest of several pieces of legislation that undermine civil liberties, including the Police, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023. 

ICJP Director Tayab Ali said: 

“Orwellian doesn’t cut it. There is something truly remarkable about the idea of not only banning people from speaking out in support of BDS, but even banning people from saying they would speak about it if it were lawful. If you take a step back, it is shocking that we’ve reached this point. 

It’s particularly concerning to see how this bill singles out individual public sector employees. This isn’t just about policy; it is a genuinely nasty bill designed to foster a culture of fear and silence and create a chilling effect. The government want to coddle Israel in bubble wrap and shield them from any criticism whatsoever. 

The bill puts public bodies between a rock and a hard place. If they abide by this new UK law, they’ll be at risk of breaking international law on aiding and abetting crimes in Israel. It’s an absolutely impossible position that the government is forcing on them.” 


Notes to Editors: 

  1. The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians is an independent organisation of lawyers, politicians and academics who support the rights of Palestinians and aim to protect their rights through the law. 
  2. The first draft of the bill, tabled on the 19th June 2023, can be viewed here.
  3. For further information on the details of the bill, please contact us to receive a briefing with a detailed analysis of the implications of the bill.  
  4. The specific article of the Rome Statute in question is Article 25(3)(c), which can be viewed here.   
  5. For more information, or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson please contact: Jonathan Purcell, Public Affairs and Communications Officer, at [email protected]