The anti BDS bill targets Palestine solidarity & attacks dissent
Today it’s public institutions, tomorrow it’s private companies and individuals.
The UK government won a vote on Monday night in favour of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill or, as it’s more commonly known, the anti-BDS bill, which sets to ban public bodies from conducting independent economic boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns. Aside from the devastating affect this has on bringing about peaceful reform in the defence of human rights, another huge travesty is being overlooked: our moral agency and freedom to protest.
Forcing public bodies to invest, spend or partner with companies who support human rights abuses is an affront to freedom of choice and moral autonomy in a democratic society.
The message we’re getting is clear.
Public bodies must forgo their ethical obligation to end complicity in war crimes and cannot make ethical business decisions. Instead, they must, by law, pursue the government’s foreign policy agenda with public money – regardless of how morally bankrupt this agenda may be.
''Criminalising ethical choices that counter government agenda is a dangerous step in the attack on our freedoms and a desperate attempt to avoid accountability. In reality, the larger implications of the anti-BDS bill leave all campaign groups vulnerable to government overreach.''
This time last year, Israel dropped bombs on Gaza, killing 5-year-old Alaa Qadoum and others. In response, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss vowed to combat BDS against Israel in letters written to the Conservative Friends of Israel.
What, one may ask, is driving our government? Morality or self-interest? Civil liberties or control?
The bill is backed by faint claims of community cohesion. BDS, they say, is divisive and causes discord amongst various groups in British society.
However, this claim has little to no standing. The struggle against oppression is, by its very nature, polarised. There will always be groups on either side. There will always be those who stand for and against. This is the reality of humankind. The erosion of the BDS movement is not a solution to a united community because community cohesion is not disrupted by challenges to injustice, but rather by injustice itself.
But since when do the potential extreme actions of a fringe halt the pursuit of justice? The struggle against oppression, like all things in life, is not immune to wrongful manipulation. Peaceful protests of any kind will almost always host some individuals who use the pursuit of justice as a mascaraed for their own unjust ends, but never should this be grounds for complying with human rights abuses. Would we accept a lawless society in order to avoid individuals who would break the law?
Boycott, divestment and sanctions does not threaten community cohesion, nor does it contribute to antisemitism. It is a legitimate course of peaceful protest against injustice. From the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 to the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1980’s, BDS has proved a powerful tool for positive social change.
But let’s be honest, the government know this, telling from their historical and present day employment of it - we need only look to the UK’s sanctions relating to Russia to see how its power is valued.
So, what’s the problem? Moral autonomy and principled action that doesn’t fall in line with the government’s invested interests. By forcefully homogenising government and public body agendas, our institutions lose their moral autonomy and the peoples power to effect positive social change is weakened. Our public institutions are premised on principles of justice, well-being and mutual enrichment, yet they will be banned from having any practical, ethical independence in their financial decision making - a reality that verges on laughable.
The BDS movement is a non-violent and peaceful response to an illegal occupation, I will not be supporting this bill. My contribution to the chamber this evening: pic.twitter.com/ahQQgwQ8Hj— Crispin Blunt MP (@CrispinBlunt) July 3, 2023
Thankfully, there’s still hope. It’s unlikely that the anti-BDS bill will be enough to encourage particular public institutions to completely surrender their morals and actively profit from human rights abuses, especially given that they house some of our most compassionate members of society. But the government may not be ready for the repercussions.
It’s not implausible to suggest that the anti-BDS bill will likely serve to aggravate public dissatisfaction further. At best, ethical economic choices will be forced underground, cloaked in otherwise acceptable policy. And at worst, employee dissatisfaction will increase, resulting in more strikes, more disruption, and more valuable resources spent on trying to restore justice.
Even in those dismal cases where the bill is enough to render BDS pursuits extinct, community frustration will inevitably boil over in the form of protests and targeted boycotts of public services that violate the principles of the very people they seek to serve.
Despite all of these concerns, the most pressing question that still remains to be answered is, if we ban public institutions from engaging in independent BDS campaigns, what makes us think that they’ll stop there?
Criminalising ethical choices that counter government agenda is a dangerous step in the attack on our freedoms and a desperate attempt to avoid accountability. In reality, the larger implications of the anti-BDS bill leave all campaign groups vulnerable to government overreach.
Today it’s public institutions, tomorrow it’s private companies and individuals. Our freedoms are at threat. We might have once thought it far-fetched to insinuate state control, but this bill brings such a reality ever so closer to home.
Anna B is currently undertaking a PhD with the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the cultivation of faith across the Christian and Islamic traditions. She is also a non-fiction editor and writer working with publishers, think-tanks and academic institutes.
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.