On the Proposal to Ban Boycotting by Public Bodies

Joey Wilson-Brooke takes a closer look at a new Government proposal which is similar to recent new legislation passed in Canada.

The recent proposals by the Government regarding the banning of boycotting by public bodies have caused some debate, to say the least. As I write, Radio 4’s ‘Moral Maze’ programme is discussing the topic. To give a quick summary of the proposals, the Government’s press release states that the new guidance “makes clear that procurement boycotts by public authorities are inappropriate” and that such boycotts “undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarising debate, weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism”. The press release claims that under the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Act, “all those countries that have signed up” (the UK being amongst these) are required to “treat suppliers equally” and that this includes Israel. The press release argues that “any discrimination against Israeli suppliers involving procurement would therefore be in breach of the Agreement”.

So the government is claiming such procurement boycotts (and by this, they mean boycotting Israeli products and suppliers) by representative bodies of the UK Government are in fact illegal. They cannot make it illegal for private companies to make political statements by boycotting, but they can impose it on those within their own control.

Another area to interrogate in the press release is the suggestion that boycotting can create tension between communities. The reference to anti-Semitism has been a very prominent aspect of the debate surrounding the ban, and is one that the charity, Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, has elucidated on. Participating on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze panel discussion, Jonathon Sacerdoti argued how the boycotting of Israeli products and suppliers is a form of “intimidation”. He referred to the charity’s recent polling of “British Jews” which suggested that “84% considered boycotting of businesses selling Israeli products to be intimidatory” and that “77% had witnessed antisemitism disguised as a political comment about Israel”. israel boycottWhilst we must always bear in mind the saying ‘Lies, damn lies, and statistics’ when considering statistics, the charity’s attitude is certainly an interesting aspect to consider when public bodies make the decision to boycott. Whilst Sacerdoti defended the individual’s right to boycott, he argued that it should not be the place of a public body to be so overtly political.

So how does this affect our freedom of expression? The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights states under Article 19 that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” which “includes freedom to hold opinions without interference”. However, under Article 18 “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. It would appear that we have the right to express our opinions but that a boycotting of Israeli products might be in conflict with a particular religious group.

But what about boycotts other than the very obviously stated Israeli boycott? What about the Nestlé boycott on account of its contribution to “to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants around the world by aggressively marketing baby foods in breach of international marketing standards”, according to Baby Milk Action? What about past political boycotts, such as the boycott of South Africa during its apartheid, which the “Labour and Liberal Parties [of the 1960’s] gave their backing as did the Trade Union Congress (TUC)” (South African History Online)?

Is it too cynical to suggest that this ban is perhaps more to do with trade links and appearances?

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