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The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Report

By Rania Alabbadi

The Bill outlined below is evidence of further distancing the UK from a moral and ethical compass which UNHS regards as essential for politics based on universal humanitarian principles. After reading and reflection, please consider writing to your MP with your concern about the issues raised.

Bill Summary The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on June 19th, 2023. The Bill introduced legislation that will restrict public bodies from taking into consideration the political and moral ethicality of a foreign state or territory when determining to invest or procure services. The Bill specifically mentions the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ or BDS campaign as a target. BDS is a movement that works to end international support of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories. If the The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill were to be passed, then engagement with the BDS movement would be disallowed among British public companies. Supporters of the bill argue that public bodies should not engage in campaigns such as BDS, unless the campaigns are aligned with the UK’s foreign policy. At the current moment (September 2023), the Bill is in the report stage in the House of Commons.

Effects and Criticisms The Balfour Project points out that the potential passing of the Bill will contradict the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights published by the United Nations, which the UK signed on over a decade ago. Through this agreement, the UK has an obligation to ensure

that businesses are positively supporting human rights by being conscious of their commercial partners. More recently, the UK voted in support of the 2016 UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which asks participating states to condemn the actions of Israel in the occupied territories including the building of illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The passing of the Bill will punish public bodies that are abiding by the UK’s responsibility to do so as a member state of the UN Security Council.

Critics of the Bill have further pointed out that the new Bill will prohibit UK public bodies from choosing ethical investments against all human rights violators overseas as the Bill is not country-specific. As a consequence, the bill impacts the solidarity with the Uyghur minority in Myanmar and China. In response, the government has suggested a clause that will allow Ministers to exempt individual countries from the restrictions in the Bill. Ukraine was cited as a given exemption if the bill were to be passed. However, the Bill ensures that the same exemption cannot be placed against Israel through an embedded clause. The included clause stops current and future Ministers from creating an exemption in relation to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the Golan Heights. Thereby, no British public body can choose to participate in ethical investments against the listed territories, no matter the severity of human rights violations and no Minister can adjust this clause. This is a clear threat to the freedom of speech as it impedes the rights of public companies to choose on whether or not to engage in ethical investing and business practices with foreign partners. Put simply, the Bill and included clause permits Israel freedom in continuing their onslaught of illegal actions without fear of punishment, which prompts the question why Israel has been permitted such a steep exemption in relation to their human rights violations.

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