London, 10 January 2024- Today, the ‘anti-boycott bill’ will be read for the third time in the House of Commons. It is the last chance for MPs to oppose the bill before it moves across to the House of Lords. If passed, it 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’.
This controversial bill would cripple the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought and conscience that are integral to a functioning democracy. It has been opposed by the ‘Right to Boycott Coalition’, made up of over 75 civil society organisations, including trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations.
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.
This clause shows how the bill is clearly aimed at the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an anti-racist, non-violent movement initiated by over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with its obligations under international law. Despite this, not only were no representatives of the BDS movement invited to give oral evidence at Committee Stage, but no Palestinian organisation whatsoever was invited.
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
- 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.
- For more information, or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson please contact the ICJP news desk at [email protected].