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British government on trial for blocking BDS

Image of a BDS rally [McGill Daily/Flickr]
Image of a BDS rally [McGill Daily/Flickr]

Campaigners for Palestine have been granted permission to take the UK government to trial over its attempt to restrict boycott and divestment of Israel.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has won a legal challenge against measures introduced by the British government, and has been granted permission for a judicial review of the changes to rules which critics say is an attack on freedom of choice and democracy. The case will now proceed to a full trial.

    In 2005 Palestinian civil society called for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions measures until Israel adheres to its obligations under international law.

In October 2015, the UK government announced new measures governing Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) with the specific aim of curtailing divestment campaigns against UK defence firms implicated in Israel’s violations of international law.

Under the new measures, ethical decision-making by LGPS was restricted in areas relating to UK foreign policy or the UK defence industry, although the exact scope of the areas remained uncertain.

Human rights campaigners criticised the new measures and voiced concerns over the increasing threats to freedom of expression in UK on Palestine, including government overreach in local democracy, and the rights of pension holders to divest funds.

Read: Leading BDS activist banned from Israel

The PSC believes that the measures taken by the government was another attempt to undermine the peaceful British BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality, which is modelled after the South African anti-apartheid boycott movement.

In granting permission, the judge described the case as “of significant public importance” and ordered that the trial be expedited to begin as soon as possible after 1 April.

PSC’s success in obtaining permission in this claim marks a significant blow to the government’s attempt to portray the case as “unarguable” and paves the way for a full trial on the issues, including whether it is legitimate to prevent the LGPS from divesting in Israel as a result of its consistent violations of international law.

Commenting on the victory, Ben Jamal, director of the PSC, said: “We are delighted that the court has agreed that PSC’s challenge to the Government is of significant public importance and has granted permission for the case to proceed.”

This represents a huge step in our efforts to overturn the Government’s attempts to prevent pension schemes from making ethical investment decisions. The Guidance represents a wider attack on people’s rights to protest about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights, including via the promotion of the peaceful campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. We are determined to defend both the rights of Palestinians and the ability of citizens everywhere to take action in support of those rights. 

Others have accused the government of contravening EU policy and adopting measures that restrict basic freedoms in a democracy.

“The government’s decision is outrageous,” said Mike Cushman from Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, before telling MEMO that the government’s decision breeches EU policy which makes a clear distinction between Israel and the occupied territory. Cushman mentioned that the EU has effectively encouraged the boycott of Israel by setting strict guidelines on settlement goods but the UK government’s decision treats Israel and illegal settlements as one and the same thing.

War on Want and Campaign against Arms Trade (CAAT) have supported PSC in the legal challenge with witness statements.

Speaking to MEMO CAAT media spokesperson, Andrew Smith, said:

This case isn’t just about Israel; this is about freedom of expression and freedom of choice.

Smith added that “the government bangs on about devolving power to local authorities but not if this freedom is exercised to make moral and conscientious choices.”

Local authorities have a right to represent the wishes of the local people and if they decide to boycott specific countries and companies’ goods and divest, the government has no business in curtailing this freedom.

In 2005 Palestinian civil society called for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions measures until Israel adheres to its obligations under international law.

The campaign is modelled on the anti-apartheid movement against white dominated South Africa. Its early incarnation in Palestine was the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Rachel Corrie who was killed on 16 March 2003 by the Israeli military is one of the most well-known members of the movement.

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