In response to expected anti-boycott legislation being prepared by the government, today 46 UK civil society groups have published a joint statement opposing the plans.
The signatories are united in deep concern that any proposed anti-boycott law would “present an existential 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.”
“As a group of civil society organizations made up of trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organizations, we advocate for the right of public bodies to decide not to purchase or procure from, or invest in companies involved in human rights abuse, abuse of workers’ rights, destruction of our planet, or any other harmful or illegal acts. We, therefore, oppose the government’s proposed law to stop public bodies from taking such actions.”
It is not clear what precise shape the anti-boycott legislation will take, but in their most recent manifesto, the Conservative party announced their intention to introduce legislation to prohibit public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycott or divestment campaigns against foreign countries, with a senior member, Eric Pickles, previously hinting that it would aim to prevent public bodies from working with those who boycott, divest from or sanction Israel – which would mirror legislation passed in 35 state legislatures in the US.
The Conservative Party has been working to restrict the right to boycott since 2016, when the government first tried to prohibit Local Government Pension Schemes from divesting from companies complicit in Israel’s violations of international law, by attaching regulations to already existing pension Laws.
PSC mounted a legal challenge and the case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which was found against the government in 2020.
Then, in February of this year, Robert Jenrick MP introduced an amendment to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill – clearly intended to bypass the Supreme Council ruling – which attached ‘guidance or directions on investments which it is not proper for pension scheme managers to make in light of the UK foreign and defense policy.’
The expected anti-boycott legislation is the latest in the series of deeply anti-democratic laws pursued by the Johnson government, coming as it would after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to massively expand police powers and constrain the right to protest; the Nationality and Borders Bill, which removes the protection of citizenship; and the Overseas Operations Bill, which could prevent the prosecution of military personnel for war crimes. Anti-boycott legislation would be part of the government’s overall crusade against dissent, and against accountability for British companies involved in violations of human rights or involved in environmental destruction.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign Director, Ben Jamal, said: “We at PSC took this government to court over the right to boycott in 2017. The case went to the Supreme Court – and, after a three-year battle, we won. We will fight this new law with the same commitment. 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. 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. Boycotting is a legitimate, historically recognized tactic that has been the engine of great leaps forward for social and international justice. From the formal end of apartheid in South Africa, the repeal of Jim Crow, the divestment from tobacco companies, and the list go on. We must defend the right to boycott as we defend the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to act in solidarity, the right to protect our own democracy – and we are proud at PSC to be coordinating this historic effort in that defense.”
Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain, Paul Parker, said: “We are very concerned about the efforts by the government to silence the ethical investment movement. As Quakers, we believe strongly in the power of legitimate, nonviolent, democratic tools such as divestment from unethical trades to realize positive change in our world. Faith is not just about words; it’s about how we use our beliefs to change the world. That means being able to put our money where our mouth is.
“The planned legislation would mean that public bodies, including local councils, could be forced into investing in companies complicit in human rights abuses, rather than investing with integrity.”
Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union, said: “Unite the Union’s members have 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. As a union with members in public bodies across the country, we strongly oppose this Tory Government’s attempts to deny our members the right to support and participate in these campaigns. That’s why we’re proud to sign this statement in support of our collective right to boycott”