In her May 2022 speech at the opening of Parliament, the Queen affirmed that the UK government will put forward “legislation [that] will prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.” Whilst not specifically singling out the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), various Conservative Party politicians have previously made it clear where their motivations lie.
For example, MP Robert Jenrick claimed in an online conference that, “within a year or two we should… have an absolute ban on BDS here, which would be a great step forwards.” Meanwhile, Conservative MP and government-appointed Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Eric Pickles, insisted at a conference in Jerusalem in 2019 that the BDS movement is antisemitic and that proposed legislation would not allow public bodies to divest from or boycott the Israeli regime.
Palestine solidarity groups have fought manoeuvres like this before. In 2017, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), along with a coalition of allies, started a legal battle to fight the British government’s introduction of “guidelines” a year prior, that denounced procurement boycotts by public bodies as “inappropriate”.
Palestine solidarity activists and allies recognised this as a clear attempt to silence BDS.
In April 2020, the PSC defeated the UK government in a landmark case at the Supreme Court. The court ruled against the aforementioned government guidelines, which restricted the ability of local government pension schemes to remove investments from companies complicit in the Israeli regime’s violation of Palestinian fundamental rights.
The PSC’s success coincided with other successful legal interventions across Europe in pursuit of upholding the right to boycott. In 2020, a German Regional Constitutional Court ruled against an anti-BDS motion, stating that it impinged on fundamental rights. And in May 2021, a French criminal court in Lyon recognised the legitimacy of the character of the BDS call.
Yet, the latest announcement in the Queen’s speech shows that the fight is far from over.
Whilst it has worrying consequences for the BDS Movement, legislation restricting boycotts also effects those wanting to pursue boycotts as a form of protest against other powers involved in human rights abuses. A statement from a group of British NGOs noted that this will, “stifle a wide range of campaigns concerned with the arms trade, climate justice, human rights, international law, and international solidarity with oppressed peoples struggling for justice.”
Clearly the Palestine solidarity movement is not the only one at risk. Indeed this renewed focus on BDS also coincides with a wave of legislation aiming to criminalise a wide range of social justice and political movements including the likes of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and migrant and refugee activists.