The UK government announcement that it is beginning formal negotiations on a new trade deal with Israel is not surprising news, but it is nevertheless of deep concern. This deal reinforces the Government’s longstanding failure to place respect for international law and human rights at the forefront of international relations, including those conducted through trade.
Whilst the Government continues to pay lip service to these principles, and to its support for the UN guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, its actual approach to trade with Israel gives the lie to the reality of these commitments. The Government is seeking to enhance trade with Israel at a moment when a consensus has emerged across international civil society that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid, as stated by Palestinian experts for decades, and confirmed by reports in the last 2 years from BT’selem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory Occupied since 1967. PSC has launched a petition calling upon the UK Government to address these reports and change UK policy towards Israel in the basis of their findings.
We have also seen in the last months the Government trumpeting its imposition of sanctions on trade with Russia in response to its illegal invasion and occupation of the Ukraine, presenting it as a manifestation of its commitment to the rule of law and to respect for human rights. By committing to increase trade with Israel, rather than addressing and ending the UK’s complicity in supporting the system of apartheid, the UK government gives the message that violations of international law and human rights, when practised by some states, will not only be tolerated by the UK but financially rewarded.
In May 2020, the government published its progress update for the “UK National Action Plan on implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”. It reaffirmed a commitment of the UK to three pillars:
1) The duty of the state to protect human rights;
2) The government expectation of business to respect human rights;
3) Access to remedy for human rights abuses by businesses.
As outlined in PSC’s submission to the Government consultation on Trade with Israel, these applying principles meaningfully would mean at a minimum ending the import of goods from illegal Israeli settlements; taking punitive action against UK companies such as JCB which continue to trade with illegal settlements, and ending the 2-way arms trade with Israel.
Those genuinely committed to supporting human rights and the rule of international law will pressure the government to take action to hold Israel to account, rather than reward it for its crimes against humanity.