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Diluted UK government position on ‘Israel boycott ban’ follows public outrage

The UK government yesterday announced more details of its restrictions on public bodies regarding ethical procurement. Palestinian boycott campaigners say the documents

The UK government yesterday announced more details of its restrictions on public bodies regarding ethical procurement.

Palestinian boycott campaigners say the documents amount to an attempt to intimidate councils and universities but do not appear to introduce new legal obligations on public bodies.

Riya Hassan, Europe Campaigns Officer with the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the coalition of Palestinian organisations that leads the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, said:

"Perhaps the public outrage over the governments attack on local democracy hit a nerve in Westminster because the documents published do not 'ban boycotts' in the way that the government announced it wanted to."

“We’re seeking further legal advice but it appears that it remains perfectly legal for councils and universities to take ethical stances that reflect the views of their communities and exclude companies that violate human rights from tender exercises.”

“The tone and language in the documents published by the government is intended as a gift to Israel and is clearly designed to intimidate councils into falsely thinking that they are no longer allowed to exclude companies that violate human rights from tender exercises, making this a particularly underhand attack on local democracy.”

The document published yesterday sets out existing legal obligations regarding public sector procurement processes. It uses World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules to argue that public bodies cannot refuse to deal with a company because of the country they are based in. It does not appear to introduce new legal obligations or requirements for public bodies.

Palestine campaign groups urge universities and councils not to award contracts to companies such as G4S - which helps Israel run prisons in which Palestinians are tortured - due to their participation in Israeli violations of international law, not because of their presence or connections to Israel.

The existing Public Contracts Regulations 2015 which is based on EU law, allows for companies to be excluded from tender exercises if they have committed "gross misconduct", a provision that does not appear to have been changed.

Hassan added:

“This is the most pro-Israel UK government in a generation and this government is going further than Margaret Thatcher ever went to defend South African apartheid.”

"We share the outrage of people in Britain about the government's willingness to undermine civil rights and democratic principles in order to shield Israel ethical pressure similar to that applied to apartheid South Africa.”

“Israel is aware that it is becoming a pariah state, that BDS is having an economic impact and that more companies are exiting the Israeli market so it is exporting a patently anti-democratic model of how governments should deal with dissent that is based on repression.”

French multinational Veolia ended its role in illegal Israeli settlements after local councils in the UK and beyond dropped it from contracts worth more than £10bn. Veolia lost contracts with councils and other public bodies in London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Canterbury, East Sussex, Winchester and many others as a result of BDS campaigns.

Councils in Tower Hamlets, Leicester, Swansea and Bristol are among those that have passed resolutions in support of BDS or condemning companies involved in illegal Israeli settlements.

Four Scottish councils - Midlothian Council, Clackmanarkshire, W. Dunbartonshire and Stirling - have also voted to join the BDS movement. Today’s announcement will not impact public bodies in Scotland.

Separate guidance regarding public sector pension funds is expected later this year and is expected to go much further in limiting powers of public bodies. More than 15,000 people have written to the government urging it not to give central government veto power over local council investment decisions as part of a campaign organised by a coalition of climate, anti-arms trade and Palestine campaigners.

The potentially far-reaching limits to council powers regarding investments and procurement have been criticised by Amnesty International, elected councillors, local government experts and the Labour Party.

Under international law, local and national governments are obliged not to aid and abet Israel’s illegal Israeli settlements. The UK government has issued guidance urging businesses not to maintain economic links with settlements.

BDS in the UK

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005.

Boycott and divestment tactics in support of Palestinian rights under international law have been endorsed by the Trades Union Congress and more than a dozen individual trade unions, the Green Party, the National Union of Students and dozens of student unions.

Kate Tempest, Jarvis Cocker and Roger Waters from Pink Floyd are among the 1,000 artists who recently pledged not to perform in Israel over its occupation and human rights violations.

French multinationals Veolia and Orange and Ireland’s biggest company CRH are among the major companies to exit the Israeli market following high profile campaigns against their involvement in Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. View a roundup of BDS successes in 2015 here.


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