A British parliamentary committee examining a bill that would ban public bodies from supporting the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been told that the UK government is taking a “dangerous road” by labeling critics of the Israeli regime’s human rights record as anti-Semitic.
Human rights and environment advocates warned on Thursday that the proposed legislation risks inflaming community tensions by marginalizing Palestinians and pro-Palestinian advocacy organizations campaigning against Israeli human rights abuses.
While giving evidence, Peter Frankental of Amnesty International linked the UK government’s attempts to connect Palestinian activism and BDS to anti-Semitism to a broader stigmatization of human rights advocacy worldwide.
“There is no reason in principle why any human rights advocate should not advocate for the human rights of Palestinians, or criticize the human rights record of Israel, and they should not be tarred with the brush of racism, of anti-Semitism. That is a very dangerous road,” Frankental told British legislators.
He went on question whether campaigners drawing attention to violations against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar would be accused of being anti-Buddhist, or whether critics of the Indian government would face accusations of being anti-Hindu.
Yasmine Ahmed, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, also said the bill would restrict the ability of public bodies to carry out their own due diligence in line with their responsibilities to adhere with international law and UN human rights commitments.
“Something that is extremely pernicious with the bill is the fact that what it is going to do is have a significant chilling effect on public bodies. It runs a coach and horses through ESG [environment, social and governance] and human rights due diligence,” she said.
Ahmed added that in decades working as a lawyer, she had “never read a piece of legislation that is as badly worded as this.”
Additionally, Dave Timms, head of political affairs at environmental campaign organization Friends of the Earth, criticized the bill.
“This is the state impinging on the activities of civil society organizations who are trying to achieve meaningful social change,” he said.
“This is a direct attack on the ability of civil society to go about the activities that we would consider to be legitimate,” Timms noted.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill aims to prohibit public bodies, including local councils, universities and public sector pension funds, from making procurement and investment decisions “influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct.”
The UK government says the bill is intended to ensure that local authorities and other institutions do not pursue their own foreign policy agendas, but that the bill will also deliver on a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to ban public bodies from supporting campaigns such as BDS.
It claims that support for BDS has contributed to community divisions and anti-Semitism in the UK.
The BDS movement, which is modeled after the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, was launched in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organizations that were pushing for “various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.”
Thousands of volunteers worldwide have since then joined the BDS movement, which calls for people and groups across the world to cut economic, cultural, and academic ties to Tel Aviv, to help promote the Palestinian cause.
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