RESPONDING TO EXPECTED ANTI-BOYCOTT LEGISLATION being prepared by the UK Government, 46 UK civil society and faith groups, including the Methodist Church, United Reformed Church and Quakers in Britain, have published a joint statement opposing the plans.
Under the proposed legislation, public bodies could be forced to follow UK foreign policy in their purchasing, procurement and investment decisions.
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.”
It is not clear what precise shape the anti-boycott legislation will take, but in its most recent manifesto, the Conservative party announced an intention to introduce legislation to prohibit public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycott or divestment campaigns against foreign countries. Former Conservative minister Lord Pickles has previously indicated that it would aim to prevent public bodies from working with those who boycott, divest from or sanction Israel. This would mirror legislation passed in 35 state legislatures in the US.
US civil liberties lawyers have pointed out that these legal mechanisms can provide a pathway for other attacks on freedom. Legislation has been drafted in Indiana and North Dakota against activists who target fossil fuel companies, using anti-boycott laws as their template, and similar measures have been proposed for anti-gun campaigners in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri.
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 Law. PSC mounted a legal challenge, supported by Quakers in Britain and other groups and the case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which found against the government in 2020.
Then, in February of this year, Conservative MP Robert Jenrick introduced an amendment to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill – clearly intended to bypass the Supreme Council ruling, say campaigners – which attached ‘guidance or directions on investments which it is not proper for pension scheme managers to make in light of UK foreign and defence policy.
Campaigners say 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 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 prosecution of military personnel for war crimes. Anti-boycott legislation, say campaigners, 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.
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 realise 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.”
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 recognised 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, the list goes 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 defence.”
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”.
*The full statemen, list of signatories and more information on Right to Boycott is is here.