By Richard Burden
There was a time when some politicians would argue that human rights were nothing to do with business; that it was perfectly legitimate for UK companies to profit from trade with regimes overseas however badly those regimes treated their own people or neighbouring countries. The good news is that this blinkered perspective has changed in recent decades, with the United Nations, OECD and the UK government all adopting codes of conduct that firmly locate respect for human rights within the corporate responsibility of commercial enterprises. Public authorities have important roles to play too, increasingly understanding how their procurement decisions can incentivise business partners to reflect ethical standards, sustainability and human rights.
Now Ministers are trying to drive a coach and horses through those principles. Last week they announced, in guidance notes published to accompany the Queen’s Speech, that they will legislate to “stop public bodies from imposing their own approach or views about international relations, through preventing boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.” 
We’ve been here before. In 2016 Ministers announced a similar plan. Significantly, at that time they did so not in Parliament or from Downing Street but in Jerusalem – during a press conference held jointly with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The following year the Netanyahu government itself introduced legislation to deny entry to Israel by people thought by his government to support boycotts not only of Israel itself but also of illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank. Netanyahu’s move caused an outcry, not least in Israel itself, with Peace Now Israel describing the new law as “a clear violation of freedom of expression” that was “neither Jewish nor democratic.” 
In the light of the horrific events now unfolding in Israel and Palestine and growing international calls for both Israel and Hamas to be held to account for war crimes against civilians, for UK Ministers to now try the same thing that they attempted in 2016 is breathtakingly shameless.
Ministers claim that the local authority procurement decisions they have in their sights “may legitimise antisemitism.” That is rubbish. Under the Equality Act 2010 and other anti-discrimination laws, it is already rightly illegal for any public body to engage in or legitimise antisemitism – whether in their commercial dealings or in any other way. They are also already debarred from discriminating against companies purely on the basis of nationality. But they do have the right, in accordance with the Government’s own guidelines on business and human rights, to take a company’s behaviour into account when deciding whether or not to do business with it. That includes consideration of any collusion by the company with abuses of human rights at home or abroad. In that context, Israel’s documented breaches of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are already under investigation by the International Criminal Court. It is as legitimate for public authorities here to consider the role of UK companies in sustaining that illegality as it is in relation to human rights abuses in Myanmar and Xinjiang, or Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Only this year, the United Nations published a database of 112 companies whose commercial dealings in the Occupied Palestinian Territory raise, in the words of the UN, “human rights concerns.“ Three UK-registered companies – JCB Excavators, Opodo Ltd and Greenkote PLC – are on the UN list.
I was one of several MPs who put these arguments to Ministers in a special Parliamentary debate held in response to their 2016 attempt to restrict ethical procurement by local authorities. Ministers had to back off on that occasion – partly because we were able to demonstrate the glaring conflict between what they were trying to do and their obligations under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights 2011.
But 2016 was not even the first time this kind of thing had been tried. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to outlaw local authority boycotts of companies complicit with Apartheid South Africa. She was wrong then and Boris Johnson’s government is wrong now.
MP for Birmingham Northfield 1992-2019 and former Chair of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group. Co-patron of the Balfour Project.
17 May 2021