Israel BDS campaigner June, 2010 (Photo: Creative Commons/Mohamed Ouda)
Elham Asaad Bauras
The UK Government’s newly imposed ban on public-sector boycotts of Israel is not only misleading and unethical say critics but it is also at odds with existing Foreign Office (FCO) rules.
Under the newly published plan all publicly funded institutions including local councils, quangos and universities which receive the majority of their funding from the Government will lose the freedom to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Public bodies will lose the freedom to take ethical decisions about whom they purchase goods and services from. The only exemption will be UK-wide sanctions decided by the Government in Westminster. Government sources said the ban could also apply to student union boycotts but added this was a “grey area”.
A small number of local bodies have initiated their own boycotts. Leicester City Council announced it will not buy products made in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 2014, while the Scottish Government published a procurement notice to Scottish councils which “strongly discourages trade and investment from illegal settlements”.
Other councils have warned they might not do business with companies that operate in West Bank settlements.
Senior Government sources said they were cracking down on boycotts as they “undermined good community relations, poisoned and polarised debate and fuelled anti-Semitism.”
The Cabinet Office warned that boycotts risk breaching a long-standing World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement, which requires all those countries that have signed up to the agreement, including the EU and Israel, to treat suppliers equally.
However, the coalition of Palestinian organisations that leads the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, argued that it was still legal for public bodies to “exclude companies that violate human rights from tender exercises.”
In a statement to The Muslim News Riya Hassan, the Europe Campaigns Officer for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, said there is a clear difference between the original WTO agreement and what the Government has now announced.
She said: “The WTO agreement that the Government is citing makes clear public bodies can pursue ethical policies that reflect public opinion, as does the relevant EU and UK legislation.
“The documents the Government published are intended as a gift to Israel and are clearly designed to intimidate councils into falsely thinking that they are no longer allowed to exclude companies that violate human rights from tender exercises or boycott Israeli companies over their links to Israel’s war crimes.
“French multinational Veolia ended its role in illegal Israeli settlements after local councils in the UK and across Europe listened to their local communities and stopped dealing with the company. The BDS movement will continue to try to work with public bodies to hold to account those companies that help Israel to violate international law.”
Hassan accused David Cameron’s Government of “going further than Margaret Thatcher ever went to defend South African apartheid.”
Hassan said campaigners were seeking legal advice “but it appears that it remains perfectly legal for councils and universities to take ethical stances.”
Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Hugh Lanning, branded the move a “gross attack on democratic freedoms.”
“As if it is not enough that the UK Government has failed to act when the Israeli Government has bombed and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and stolen their homes and land, the Government is now trying to impose its inaction on all other public bodies,” said Lanning.
He added, “This makes it clear where this Government stands on international law and human rights. Despite the Government admitting that Israel’s occupation and denial of Palestinian rights is plain wrong and illegal, when it comes to it they will insulate Israel from the consequences of its own actions. It seems that for this UK Government, whatever crimes against international law Israel commits, having a military ally trumps the rights of their own citizens and institutions in this country to support human rights.”
A spokesman for the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, dubbed the ban an “unethical is an attack on local democracy.
“People have the right to elect local representatives able to make decisions free of central Government political control. That includes withdrawal of investments or procurement on ethical and human rights grounds.
“This Governments ban would have outlawed council action against apartheid South Africa. Ministers talk about devolution, but in practice they’re imposing Conservative Party policies on elected local councils across the board.”
Significantly, and underlining the main target of the ban, the formal announcement was made by the Cabinet Office Minister, Matt Hancock, during a visit to Israel last month. Israeli companies, along with other firms which have investments in the occupied West Bank, have been among those targeted by unofficial boycotts in the past.
Hancock said the current position where local authorities had autonomy to make ethical purchasing decisions was “undermining” Britain’s national security. “We need to challenge and prevent these divisive town-hall boycotts,” he said.
“The new guidance on procurement combined with changes we are making to how pension pots can be invested will help prevent damaging and counter-productive local foreign policies undermining our national security.”
On Wednesday (March 16) Labour’s Richard Burden MP, who chairs the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group, criticised Hancock and told ministers the new ban contradicts existing FCO’s trade with particular firms.
Burden said the FCO warns against trade with firms that “make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible.” A two-state solution is the UK’s desired outcome in the conflict.
“It was surprising that the minister for the Cabinet Office took such exception to public institutions seeking to avoid dealings with companies involved with illegal settlements when the FCO’s own website carries advice that is very different,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said they were “concerned by any external pressure that could prevent student unions taking decisions on any issue that affects the students they represent.”
Amnesty International slammed the ban warning it could encourage human rights violations.
“All public bodies should assess the social and environment impacts of any company with whom they choose to enter into business relationships,” said. Amnesty International’s UK Economic Relations Programme Director, Peter Frankental,
“Where’s the incentive for companies to ensure there are no human rights violations such as slavery in their supply chains, when public bodies cannot hold them to account by refusing to award them contracts?
“Not only would it be a bad reflection on public bodies to contract with rogue companies, but it would also be bad for responsible businesses that are at risk of being undercut by those that have poor practices.”