While much of the UK was waiting for news on the cost of living crisis in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech, an anti-BDS bill aimed at restricting pro-Palestinian activism in the country was slipped into the address.
The ambiguously stated bill would “prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion” – effectively meaning a ban on public bodies promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The non-violent BDS movement aims to peacefully pressure the Israeli government to comply with international law.
It now appears the UK government is a step closer to making it illegal for government workers to voice support for this non-violent campaign, inspired by the pro-democracy movement against apartheid South Africa in 1980s.
The Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA) activist group has voiced concern about the inclusion of the legislation in the Queen’s Speech and said that in a free society, public bodies should be allowed to make their decisions own ethical matters.
“In the case of Palestine, boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is a peaceful movement calling on Israel to comply with international law and end its illegal occupation of Palestine. Recently, we have seen the power of BDS with Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine – we must now see the same for Palestine,” the FOA said in a statement.
“The right to boycott, divest from and sanction those who abuse human rights and fail to comply with international law must be upheld. FOA remains committed to protecting the right of public bodies to make ethical choices through BDS.”
The proposed law is the result of years of efforts by some Conservative lawmakers to ban BDS activism in the UK. Similar legislation has been introduced in the US and other countries.
Conservative Party MP Robert Jenrick said in December that the UK government would introduce legislation banning BDS.
While the proposed bill falls short of this, analysts believe it could still have a chilling effect on Palestinian activism in the UK.
British Jewish activists on Sunday dropped a banner from Westminster Bridge, close to parliament, in anticipation of anti-BDS legislation: “Jews in Solidarity with Palestinians: Defend Democracy! Oppose the Anti-Boycott Bill.”
Aron Keller, a member of the Right to Boycott coalition, said that the Conservative government and some elements in civil society had “chosen politics of ‘divide and rule’ with the proposed anti-BDS legislation, anti-immigration laws, and the Public Order Bill, which could set up serious obstacles to the right to protest in the UK.
“The anti-boycott bill announced today is the latest in a spate of authoritarian measures designed to limit dissent,” Keller told The New Arab.
“In citing antisemitism as a justification for criminalising BDS, the Tories are once again exploiting Jewish fears in the service of defending Israeli apartheid and repressing the basic democractic right of all Britons to freedom of expression. We emphatically reject the co-opting of antisemitism for these authoritarian ends.”
Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), said the group has fought the UK government on similar legislation in the past and will continue to resist anti-BDS legislation such as the proposed bill.
“We at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign took this government to court over this same issue in 2017. The case went to the Supreme Court – and we won,” he stated.
“This government is clearly committed to curbing the rising global movement of solidarity with the Palestinians – but the legislation that has been introduced today can be weaponised against any number of causes and brings the state into direct conflict with people’s fundamental right to choose how their money is spent.”
The PSC and 48 other civil society organisations founded the Right to Boycott movement in April, aimed at defending the freedom to protest or boycott – core tenets in UK democracy. It appears that the Conservative government now aims to chistle away at these rights through the anti-BDS bill, ending the Human Rights Act, and other the Public Order Bill.
“Though the government has been threatening this legislation for several years it is no less outrageous to see such an anti-democratic bill presented in one of the oldest seats of democracy. Boycotting is a legitimate, historically recognised tactic and the right to employ it is a core democratic right,” he said.
“We won before, and we will prevail again. Our first act will be taking to the streets of London this Saturday, to mark the 74th anniversary of the Nakba – and to protect our right to boycott.”