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UK Supreme Court rules against government attempt to curb BDS

Protesters gathered in front of the Israeli Embassy in central London, in support of Gaza's anniversary march of the 'Great March of Return', in London, UK on March 30, 2018 [Palestinian Forum in Britain]
Protesters gathered in front of the Israeli Embassy in central London, in support of Gaza's Great March of Return in London, UK on 30 March 2018 [Palestinian Forum in Britain]

The British government has suffered a major defeat in its attempt to curb the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in a long running legal battle with the UK’s largest organisation campaigning for Palestinian human rights.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) won the landmark case in the Supreme Court today in its challenge to the government regulations which restrict Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) from divesting contrary to UK foreign and defence policy. The regulations limited the possibility of divestment from companies involved in or profiting from Israel’s human rights violations.

In bringing the legal case, the PSC had raised concerns about threats to freedom of expression, government overreach in local democracy and the right of pension holders to have a say in the investment and divestment of their funds.

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The legal battle between the government and the PSC began in 2016 when the Department for Communities and Local Government issued guidance which prohibited LGPS from going ahead with divestment from foreign states and the UK defence industry. This included a prohibition against divestment from companies on the basis that they trade in products produced in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. Human rights activists and free speech advocates viewed the guidance as an attempt to curb the rise of the BDS movement.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) poster

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) poster

The PSC sought a judicial review against the government guidelines in 2017. The challenge resulted in an Administrative Court ruling which concluded that the decision to prohibit LGPS funds from this kind of disinvestment was unlawful. The Court of Appeal then overturned the Administrative Court’s decision at a hearing in May 2018. In November 2018, though, PSC was granted permission to appeal against this judgement at the Supreme Court, which announced today that it ruled in favour of the PSC.

The ruling comes just months after the British government announced its intention to introduce legislation to prohibit public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect BDS campaigns against foreign countries. The move was condemned widely by human rights campaigners as an attack on civil liberties.

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The PSC has stressed today that the government’s defeat in the Supreme Court demonstrates the illegitimacy of its attempts to suppress BDS campaigns.

“This historic victory represents a major win not just for the campaign for Palestinian rights, but also for the fundamental principles of democracy, freedom of expression and justice,” said Professor Kamel Hawwash, the Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. “The Supreme Court ruling sends a decisive message to the UK Government that it should not be dictating how Local Government Pension Schemes choose to invest their funds, including choosing not to invest in companies complicit in Israel’s human rights abuses.”

Hawwash pointed out that at a time when Israel is continuing to ramp up its oppression of the Palestinian people and its illegal acts, including annexing large swathes of the illegally occupied West Bank, the British government should be acting to uphold international law and defend human rights, not attacking peaceful campaigns which seek to do precisely that. “The PSC will continue to resist any attempts to suppress BDS activism, and I extend deep thanks to all our members and supporters who have stood by us every step of the way in this legal case. We have shown how powerful this movement is.”

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Jamie Potter, a partner in the public law and human rights team at Bindmans LLP, and the lawyer for the PSC, welcomed the Supreme Court’s confirmation that the government went too far in imposing its political opinions onto the management of the money of LGPS members. “LGPS members now have the freedom to pursue their own principles in respect of the role of the arms trade and foreign countries in violations of human rights around the world, when determining how their pension monies are invested,” he added.

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