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UK: MPs should oppose 'draconian' anti-boycott bill

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - back in Commons tomorrow - will make it unlawful for public bodies to reflect ethical and human rights issues in procurement and investment decisions 

Special status for Israel will shield it from action arising from human rights violations in Gaza and elsewhere

‘It’s utterly bizarre that ministers are trying to prevent members of councils and other public bodies from being able to consider the carnage in Gaza’ - Sacha Deshmukh

Amnesty International is calling on MPs to reject a controversial Government bill due to be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow (10 January) which will make it potentially unlawful for public bodies such as councils and NHS trusts to reflect human rights and ethical issues in decisions about procurement or their investment of funds.

The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - dubbed the “anti-boycott bill” by those who see it as an attempt to prevent decision-making linked to ethical concerns about Israel’s human rights record - uniquely shields (clause 3 in the bill) Israel from ever being put on a list of countries to which this law might in the future not apply. 

As such, the bill effectively grants Israel impunity at a time of flagrant breaches of international law in Gaza and the West Bank.

The bill is set to receive its third Commons reading on Wednesday afternoon and Amnesty - which opposes the bill on human rights grounds and is calling for it to be scrapped - will be briefing MPs in a face-to-face meeting ahead of Wednesday’s debate. 

Since the bill was first introduced into Parliament by Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities last summer, more than 20,000 people in Gaza have been killed in Israel’s devastating military response to the 7 October attacks by Palestinian armed groups in Israel. 

The anti-boycott bill’s third reading comes at a time of widespread public debate about the UK government’s position on the crisis in Gaza, with growing opposition to the Government’s failure to unambiguously call for an immediate ceasefire. Amnesty has called for ministers to speak out about the need for Israel to lift its illegal 16-year blockade of Gaza, for the UK to halt further arms transfers to Israel, and for the UK to proactively support the International Criminal Court’s investigation into longstanding human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Amnesty has also repeatedly called on UK ministers to hold Israel to account for committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians. 

Campaigners say the anti-boycott bill would, for example, prevent public bodies from using the leverage of their procurement and investment policies to deter companies from doing business with Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which are illegal under international law. The UK government acknowledges that such settlements are illegal, therefore raising serious questions about the introduction of a law which would penalise public bodies who seek to address this issue.

Another incongruity of the legislation, say campaigners, is that while the Government has officially championed the work of human rights defenders around the world, the bill will delegitimise such human rights campaigning - especially where it relates to Israel, including with boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns which ministers have sought to brand “antisemitic”.  

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK's Chief Executive, said:

“This draconian bill will stifle free speech among members of public bodies and undermine efforts to procure goods and services free from slavery, environmental harm and other human rights abuses. 

“The clear intention of the bill is to make members of councils, NHS trusts and other public bodies fearful of sharing views in their correspondence or on social media about issues like the terrible human rights crisis in Gaza or China’s appalling treatment of the Uighurs.

“With Israel’s lethal conduct in Gaza being heavily criticised all over the world, it’s utterly bizarre that ministers are trying to prevent members of councils and other public bodies from being able to consider the carnage in Gaza when drawing up and implementing their procurement policies. 

“We shouldn’t be suppressing free speech, legitimate debate and human rights campaigning - and we shouldn’t be in the business of investigating public officials for their opinions on important human rights issues.” 


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