A groundswell of public discontent has emerged as thousands of people have joined forces to voice their opposition to a contentious bill that could potentially curtail the ability of public bodies to boycott or divest from entities found to violate human rights. The petition, which has garnered nearly 18,000 signatures, was recently presented to 10 Downing Street, demanding that the UK government abandon the controversial legislation.
The campaign, led by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and supported by a coalition of various campaign groups, centers around the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill. Scheduled for parliamentary review in September, the bill seeks to restrict public bodies, including local councils, universities, and public sector pension funds, from making ethical decisions regarding investments, spending, and trade.
A Threat to Human Rights
The core concern of campaigners is that this bill, if passed, would severely undermine the right to boycott and divest from companies or countries implicated in international law and human rights violations. Notably, the bill has sparked outrage due to its potential impact on addressing pressing issues such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and human rights abuses. Critics argue that the legislation’s ramifications would extend to environmental and social justice campaigns, including those advocating against fossil fuels, arms trade, and modern slavery.
The petition, presented to 10 Downing Street, enjoyed broad support from over 70 civil society groups, including major trade unions like Unite, Unison, and the RMT, student groups like NUS and People & Planet, and prominent campaign organizations such as Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth, and War on Want. The Scottish Government has also declared its opposition to the bill.
Voices of Concern and Resistance
Prominent figures present during the petition handover included Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; Asad Rehman, Director of War on Want; Clare Baker from Unite the Union; and Grace Da Costa representing Quakers in Britain.
Ben Jamal commented on the significance of the petition, stating, “The huge response to this petition reflects widespread alarm across whole swathes of progressive civil society that the anti-boycott bill represents a major attack on freedom of expression. Opposition to this bill is growing because it threatens, not just the ability of public bodies to take part in boycott and divestment campaigns in support of Palestinian rights, but all those who seek change through peaceful and democratic means.”
Grace Da Costa, representing Quakers in Britain, emphasized the historical importance of boycotts and divestments in the pursuit of equality, peace, and sustainability. Da Costa said, “The government must withdraw this bill to protect human rights in the UK and around the world.”
Parliamentary Scrutiny and Ongoing Campaign
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill successfully passed its second reading in the House of Commons earlier this year. In the coming weeks, it is set to undergo scrutiny during the committee stage, where Members of Parliament will analyze its specifics and propose amendments. Campaigners have vowed to maintain pressure on MPs and mobilize public opinion against the bill until it is ultimately dropped.