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UK civil society groups urge government to halt 'anti-boycott' bill

The government bill would prohibit organisations to organise boycott and divestment campaigns against foreign countries such as Israel
Demonstrators gather outside the Houses of Parliament after marching from outside the Israeli embassy in central London on 26 July 2014, calling for an end to violence in Gaza (AFP)

A group of civil society organisations called on the UK government on Tuesday to halt legislation that would limit the right to support causes such as Palestinian rights, climate and social justice through boycott campaigns. 

The 46 UK-based groups said in a statement they oppose plans by the government to table an "anti-boycott" bill, saying it presents a "threat to freedom of expression, and the ability of public bodies and democratic institutions to spend, invest and trade ethically in line with international law and human rights".

The groups opposing the legislation include charities, NGOs, trade unions, faith groups, climate justice and human rights groups, and cultural and solidarity organisations, such as Campaign Against Arms Trade, Greenpeace UK, the National Union of Students, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).

The proposed law would prohibit public bodies from imposing boycotts or divestment campaigns against foreign countries, including those who boycott, divest or sanction Israel.

The legislation is expected to be announced in the upcoming Queen's Speech and activists believe it will deliver a blow to freedom of expression.

“Any restriction of the right to boycott is a restriction of core democratic rights - and the breadth of the groups launching this statement today reflects that,” said Ben Jamal, PSC director.

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“Palestinian rights may be the immediate target – but there can be no doubt that climate justice, human rights and freedom of expression could easily be targeted, as we have seen happen already in the US,” he added.

Unite the Union assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, a signatory of the letter, said her organisation had “voted on many occasions over the past decade to participate in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns in the cause of international and social justice, particularly in support of Palestinian justice.”

The Conservative government tried in 2016 to prohibit local government pension schemes from divesting from companies complicit in alleged Israeli violations of international law by attaching already existing pension law.

PSC has taken the government to court over its initiative and the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the government in 2020.

“We will fight this new law with the same commitment,” said PSC’s Jamal.

Conservative MP Robert Jenrick introduced an amendment to the Pensions Bill in February to bypass the Supreme Council ruling by attaching a prohibition on "guidance or directions on investments which it is not proper for pension scheme managers to make in light of UK foreign and defence policy".