The UK government has proposed new legislation to suppress the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the Financial Times reported last week.
The measure aims to restrict the freedom of municipal pension managers to choose how they invest their funds.
A statement by the ruling Conservative Party released in October announced that it would amend legislation “to stop politically motivated boycott and divestment campaigns by town halls against UK defense companies and against Israel,” which it said would “harm Britain’s economic and international interests.”
The proposals would prevent funds from “pursuing policies which run contrary to UK foreign policy.”
Ryvka Barnard of the UK-based anti-poverty organization War on Want told The Electronic Intifada that the move comes “at the same time as the increase in the use of lawfare against Palestine activism.”
Earlier this year an anti-BDS law passed by the Illinois state legislature banned the state’s pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel — a move to boycott the boycotters.
That law was shortly followed by national legislation that inserted anti-BDS guidelines into a trade bill. As The Electronic Intifada reported, the amendment made it a “principal negotiating objective” of the United States “to discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel” in negotiations with the European Union over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Those actions came within months of Israel’s high court affirming its own so-called Boycott Law, which allows Israeli businesses to sue any person or organization that calls for BDS.
More recently, Israeli lawmakers have introduced a new bill that would ban BDS activists from entering any territories Israel controls.
As for the new UK measure, according to Barnard, “it’s not clear what the actual form is going to take.” The proposal must first wait for a process of public consultation that ends on 19 February. “But the chances of it being changed through the consultation process are very slim,” she said.
“It might not be legally binding,” Barnard explained, “but either way, even if it’s just a ‘guidance’ it will have a real chilling effect.”
Hugh Lanning, chair of the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign, blasted the move in a statement saying that the proposals were “an authoritarian response to the amazing growth in the UK of a movement for peace and justice for Palestine” and “a profoundly undemocratic way of undermining UK foreign policy and international law.”
Lanning notes that the action “is at odds with the government’s own longstanding policy,” citing a UK Foreign Office warning that: “Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements as well as other economic activities (including in services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognized as a legitimate part of Israel’s territory.”
The warning adds: “EU citizens and businesses should also be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible abuses of the rights of individuals.”
Norway’s state pension fund divested from Israeli companies profiting from the occupation, based in part on evidence published by The Electronic Intifada which proved that the firms were lying about their activities.
Last year, Dutch pension fund PGGM took similar action to divest from Israeli banks due to their role in West Bank settlements.
In the UK, according to the BBC, Leicester City Council recently voted to boycott goods from Israeli settlements. Four Scottish councils are also boycotting Israeli goods, as are other councils in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Barnard said that while the new measure specifically targets BDS, it’s part of a larger context of government attempts to undermine local authorities.
“It is government using technicalities as a way to prevent BDS activists but also from other people who aren’t activists to be taking action in ethical ways,” said Barnard.
But that extension of power may backfire for the Conservative Party as pension officials reject the new legislation on principle.
The Financial Times reported that the move “angered some of the country’s most senior pension officials.” These include Andrew Clare, chair in asset management at London’s Cass Business School and a pension fund trustee, who said: “Frankly the government should stop sticking its nose in. If a democratically elected council body wishes to pursue an investment strategy with money generated by council taxpayers, they should be able to.”
That report also quotes Kieran Quinn, a Labour Party councillor and chair of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund and the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum.
Quinn addressed accusations that following divestment initiatives could harm pension funds’ returns. “We are legally entitled to look at a whole range of reasons why we should or should not invest in a company. If there were international boycotts [of a company], its financial performance might fall,” he said.
For Palestine solidarity activists, the bottom line of BDS is not about numbers but about human rights — and its overall momentum is increasing, say activists.
“Pressure is mounting against arms companies which are profiting from war crimes resulting in the death and destruction of Palestinian men, women and children,” said Lanning. “Rather than attempting to block this surge of support for human rights, governments including our own should act to uphold human rights and international law.”
Barnard stands among those determined to keep the pressure on. “Technically it’s not a done deal,” she said. “It’s not exactly clear how it would work yet. In order for us to be able to mobilize people to fight it they need to understand what it is.”
“It’s using a particular set of scare tactics,” Barnard explained. “So what we’re really wanting to do is have a united front and to figure out how can we frame our fight in such a way that allows the most people to be involved.”
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a freelance photojournalist and member of the ActiveStills collective who lives in Oslo, Norway.