Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London
Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Credit: Risto Arnaudov

Why we should all be worried about the Anti-Boycott Bill

When introducing the Anti-Boycott Bill earlier this summer, Michael Gove said it would “ensure that local government acts as it should in accordance with the interest of its citizens”.

But when it comes to the substance of the Bill, it does the exact opposite. It will prevent concerned citizens from using the few instruments they have to call attention to global injustice and refusing to support oppressive practices.

The Bill will prevent public bodies from conducting their investments and procurement “in a way that indicates political or moral disapproval of a foreign state.” The 2019 Conservative manifesto included a pledge to “ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.” The UK government has cited concern over rising antisemitism and sought to tie this concern to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and any actions against Israel and the territories it illegally occupies.

The UK government wants to stop public bodies from “pursuing their own foreign policy agenda.” In reality, the Anti-Boycott Bill will prevent local authorities, universities, and other public bodies from pursuing investment and procurement policies that align with their environmental and human rights obligations.

The Bill will have a wide effect, both in terms of the types of bodies affected and geographic scope across the UK. The government’s definition of a public body is set out in the 1998 Human Rights Act and includes universities, cultural institutions, and local authorities as well as devolved administrations and their departments and agencies.

Missing from the government’s analysis is the fact that some public bodies, such as local authorities, have a public mandate of their own and are accountable to their voters in local elections. Local councils led in the 1980s in boycotting South Africa at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s government refused to condemn the South African Apartheid regime. We now know that the local authorities who took a stand against Apartheid were on the right side of history. Had the Anti-Boycott Bill been in force during the 1980s, it is likely such campaigns would have been illegal.

Public bodies and global solidarity

Public bodies are often the first port of call for communities who want to draw attention to global injustices. As part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, coordinated by Quakers in Britain, I spent 6 months in the occupied West Bank in Palestine, monitoring human rights abuses and speaking to local communities about living under occupation. We heard repeatedly from Palestinians that actions by the international community matter hugely. Any action condemning the Israeli occupation was welcomed, no matter how symbolic or small-scale.

Palestinians understand that their experiences of the occupation can motivate people across the world to do what they can to combat it. International pressure from grassroots communities can send a message to national governments that action must be taken. But community action often takes the form of precisely what is being outlawed in this Bill: local councils and universities refusing to support oppressive regimes.

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The Anti-Boycott Bill will force public bodies to potentially do business with governments and companies that are complicit in human rights abuses. This means that the UK government is in breach of its own guidance to businesses, as well as UN guidance.

It is the longstanding foreign policy of the UK government to treat Israel within its pre-1967 borders as separate and distinct from the territories it illegally occupies. The government’s guidance states that Israeli settlements “are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This Bill would bring official policy to a contradiction where the UK government is forcing public bodies to do business with illegal Israeli settlements, while simultaneously telling businesses that it does “not encourage or offer support” to that exact activity.

Flaws in the bill

A primary reason that the UK government gives for this legislation is that BDS campaigns “lead to community tensions and a rise in antisemitism.” However, the impact assessment for the Bill cites no evidence to substantiate that boycott or divestment campaigns incite hate crimes or antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred. The government admits in the assessment that they are making assumptions about predicted effects “in the absence of data.” This is a serious issue because it is the main justification given for the blanket immunity given to Israel in the legislation.

The Anti-Boycott Bill poses significant concerns regarding its potential impact on public bodies’ investments and procurement policies. While the government claims to be bringing rogue authorities into line, it fails to consider that these bodies often have their own separate democratic mandate and have been ahead of the government on human rights issues before.

The Bill itself is poorly drafted, and this leaves open the possibility of unintended consequences and public bodies being unsure of their obligations. Additionally, the lack of substantial evidence linking boycott campaigns to antisemitism raises doubts about the Bill’s justification. Overall, the legislation risks stifling ethical decision-making on environment and human rights and undermines local authorities’ historical role in taking a principled stand on crucial international issues.

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