UNITED KINGDOM: Concerns that the new anti-BDS Bill could impact democratic participation and freedom of speech

Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Alexia Ozeel, ECF.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, has been advocating for an anti-BDS Bill (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) since 2019 to prevent boycott campaigns against Israel.

On June 19th 2023, Gove announced the new anti-boycott bill, named the “Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill” in parliament which aims to ban “public bodies from imposing their own boycott or divestment campaigns against foreign countries and territories”, specifically boycotts against Israel. 

According to the Right to Boycott, a group of civil society organisations made up of trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations, this means that “local authorities, universities, and some pension funds” will be prevented from ”exercising ethical discretion when making financial decisions” signifying that that public bodies will no longer be able to make “spending or investment choices that express dissatisfaction with any state, or companies with ties to them”.

Public bodies that breach this law risk being investigated by ministers and facing significant fines.

Boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns have been used effectively throughout history to apply pressure on governments, companies, and countries to act against and change social, climate, political, and legal issues.

This bill is a great area of concern not only for individuals and organisations that campaign against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, but also for people who campaign for other political causes, such as social, labour or environmental rights, which would threaten the freedom of expression of many activists and organisations.

Ben Jamal, the director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK (PSC), declared previously that this is “another example of this government attacking democratic participation” and that the bill will…  

“weaken campaigns against deforestation, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of children and workers. That is why such a wide range of groups have come together, from trade unions, charities and NGOs, to faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations”.

Moreover, CSOs fear that this bill will deteriorate the freedom of speech and expression of those who advocate for social and climate justice as the bill will include a ‘gagging clause’ which will restrict the “ freedom of public authorities to advocate for boycott or even talk about the prohibition – forbidding all those subject to the proposed new law from even stating that they would support taking a moral stance if it were permissible to do so”.

A coalition statement release by the PSC, along with nearly 70 civil society organistions, including national trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, and human rights groups, are calling for MPs to reject this bill in parliament as it will “stifle a wide range of campaigns for justice, erode local democracy, and present a threat to freedom of expression”.