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UK rules government can ban public bodies joining BDS

Image of protesters supporting the BDS movement outside Downing Street during Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the UK on September 9 2016
Protesters supporting the BDS movement outside Downing Street during Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the UK on September 9 2016 [File photo]

The UK Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court ruling which found the UK government acted improperly by curtailing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel’s violations of international law.

The UK Court of Appeal issued its verdict today after the British Government appealed, on 17 May, a previous High Court ruling which declared it had acted improperly by seeking to use pension law to pursue its own foreign and defence policy. The ruling, given in June 2017, found that the government acted unlawfully in curtailing divestment campaigns against Israeli and international firms implicated in Israel’s violations of international law.

The case against the government was brought by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), an organisation which regularly campaigns for Palestinian human rights. PSC saw the government’s actions as an attack on freedom of choice and democracy and an attempt to undermine the peaceful BDS movement, which works for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. PSC’s victory over the government was seen as a huge success for the BDS campaign.

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The ongoing legal battle relates back to the UK government’s announcement of new measures governing Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS). Under the new measures, ethical decision-making by LGPS was restricted in areas relating to UK foreign policy or the UK defence industry.

To inform relevant parties of these new measures, the Department for Communities and Local Government released guidance in 2016 which stated that “the government has made clear that using pension policies to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and UK defence industries are inappropriate, other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the government.”

The guidance was issued despite a public consultation indicating that 98 per cent of respondents thought this was the wrong thing to do. Pension holders would therefore have been forced into investing in companies that are complicit in human rights abuses, contrary to their conscience and beliefs. The Court of Appeal’s decision now means that the UK’s power to issue binding guidance to Local Government Pension Schemes on what non-financial factors they can, and cannot, take into account when making investment decisions, is effectively unrestricted.

PSC has expressed its disappointment at the overturning of its victorious ruling, saying that the move “fails to protect the right of pension holders to make ethical decisions regarding the investment of their funds.”

PSC Chair, Hugh Lanning, said: “We are incredibly disappointed that the High Court ruling was not upheld by the Court of Appeal.”

This decision will allow the government to pursue its own agenda at the expense of democracy and the ability to exercise freedom of conscience. PSC will be considering the possibility of an appeal.

BDS is a global movement that began in 2005 when Palestinian society called for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanction measures until Israel adheres to its obligations under international law. It is modelled on the successful South African anti-apartheid boycott of the 1980s.

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