CAIRO – A decision by the British government to criminalize any public body that call for boycotting products of Israel settlements in Occupied Palestinian territories has triggered severe criticism as a “gross attack on democratic freedoms”.
“The Government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from divesting from trade or investments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy,” a spokesman for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told The Independent.
“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 Government’s 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.”
In 2014, Leicester City Council passed a policy to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The Scottish Government published a procurement notice to Scottish councils which “strongly discourages trade and investment from illegal settlements”.
The crackdown, announced by David Cameron government, would affect local councils, public bodies and even some university student unions who plan to boycott Israeli companies.
The boycott campaigns were usually led as a protest against Israeli occupation and aggressions against Gaza.
Senior government sources said they were cracking down on town-hall boycotts because they “undermined good community relations, poisoned and polarized debate and fuelled anti-Semitism”.
The decision will be made formally by the Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock when he visits Israel this week.
He added that ethical purchasing decisions were “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.”
The British government move was condemned by Amnesty International’s UK economic relations program director Peter Frankental as encouraging Israeli 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,” he said.
“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.”
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.”
Hugh Lanning, chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, condemned this move as “a gross attack on our democratic freedoms and the independence of public bodies from Government interference”.
“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,” he said.
“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.”