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The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill, or anti-boycott bill, is a threat to basic democratic rights. It will be opposed by all committed to the upholding of international law and human rights, to freedom of expression, and to opposing investment in companies contributing to rights abuses and destruction of the planet. 

If passed, this law will stifle a wide range of campaigns concerned with opposing the deadly arms trade, supporting climate justice, human rights, international law, and international solidarity with oppressed peoples struggling for justice. This is why we have been able to build a powerful coalition of nearly 70 civil society organisations—including national trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, and human rights groups, who have pledged to fight together to prevent this bill being passed. We collectively understand this bill as a part of a range of politically repressive legislation that impedes rights to protest including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, the Public Order Act, and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) bill. 

Boycott and divestment campaigns have been used by movements across the world to pressure regimes, institutions, or companies to change abusive, discriminatory, or illegal practices. They have helped to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade, obtain civil rights, and champion freedom and equality. Millions in this country, including many local authorities, took part in the campaign to boycott apartheid South Africa and their contribution to the creation of a democratic South Africa was recognised by leaders including Nelson Mandela. The current bill echoes measures introduced in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government which sought to prevent public bodies from divesting from and boycotting companies complicit in apartheid in South Africa. The Conservative Party was on the wrong side of history then, it’s on the wrong side of history now. 

Whilst this bill will affect many campaigns for justice, the government has made clear that its primary target is the Palestinian led campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, of which PSC is a proud partner. The government seeks to advance the fallacious argument that this campaign is inherently antisemitic or fosters antisemitism. Such rhetoric creates a false and dangerous equivalence between Jewish people and the policies of the state of Israel, with the effect of silencing advocates for human rights and justice. It also treats Palestinians by a different standard to any other people calling for boycott or divestment to uphold their rights, accusing them uniquely of holding an underlying racist motivation. Nobody suggests that Ukrainians might be motivated by an inherent hatred of all Russian people when they call for action to hold Russia to account for its illegal occupation of their land. 

This double standard is reinforced by an extraordinary section in the bill, a clause which outlines a special exception for Israel, granting it an immunity from accountability not granted to any other state in the world. The bill allows a government minister to grant permission to public bodies to divest from companies involved in rights abuses by some states. However, this special clause says that no government can give permission to divest from a company because of actions in support of Israel’s rights violations, including within the Occupied Palestinian Territory. 

This flies in the face of United Nations resolutions including UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which directly call on member states to distinguish in their dealings between Israel itself and its activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  If passed, it would be the first time a piece of British law requires Israel and the territories it illegally occupies to be treated in the same way. This would move away from decades of British foreign policy and international consensus on the illegality of settlements. 

This bill which seeks to grant Israel a unique protected ability to violate rights with impunity was tabled on a day on which Israel killed another six Palestinians in Jenin and a man near Bethlehem. This adds to the more than 170 it has killed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2023 thus far. It was tabled on a day on which the Israeli government moved forward with plans to further expand illegal settlements, announcing proposals to build another 4500 settler housing units. It was tabled at a time when Israel is governed by the most right-wing, ultra-nationalist extreme government in its history with members who are self-described fascists and proud racists. 

PSC will work with its coalition partners to defeat this bill. We will do everything we can to confine it — like the Thatcher government’s support for apartheid in South Africa — to the dustbin of history. 

We also pledge to continue to build and lead mass campaigns in this country to hold to account all companies complicit in violence and human rights abuse, including PUMA, JCB, and Barclays. 

We reaffirm our unyielding commitment to support the Palestinian people in their ongoing struggle to achieve the realisation of their core inalienable rights.