Background Info

Currently, Scottish public institutions are able to take different views from the UK Government on international relations and are governed by the Scottish Government which itself is able to take a different view on international relations from the UK Government.

The December 2019 Queen’s Speech stated that the UK Government will "stop public institutions from imposing their own approach or views about international relations, through preventing boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them". (Background briefing notes page 133).

If the UK Government attempts to impose this stoppage on Scottish public institutions it would involve an erosion of the devolved powers of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government has confirmed that it is “unable to fully assess the effect of the proposed measure on public institutions in Scotland”. It is a concern that the Scottish Government is unable to assess the effect of a measure over which it has devolved authority.

I believe it is clear that this measure is aimed at the campaign for BDS against Israel, although could also apply to other forms of BDS, whether or not this is intended in the Queen’s Speech, including against companies that profit from fossil fuel exploitation at the expense of measures to combat climate change, or against sectoral specific boycotts, for example by universities against regimes which persecute academics.

BDS against Israel, is a legitimate nonviolent campaign called by Palestinian civil society in 2005 to put international pressure on the Israeli State to abide by international law. Israel’s breaches of international law are well documented.

BDS against Israel calls for international supporters of international law and Palestinian human rights, to boycott, divest from and apply sanctions to the State of Israel and institutions linked to it; Israeli companies and international companies which have significant investments in Israel. The purpose of the campaign is to put international pressure on the Israeli State to abide by international law and UN Resolutions in three ways: 1, to end the illegal occupation (including the settlements and separation wall) of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights; 2, to end laws within Israel which discriminate against the Palestinian population; and 3, to recognise the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The BDS campaign explicitly references the South African campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, which contributed to the end of Apartheid in 1994.

In relation to the construction of the Israeli wall as part of the occupation of the West Bank (in its Advisory Opinion of 9 July 2004), the International Court of Justice “is of the view that all States are under an obligation not to recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem. They are also under an obligation not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction. It is also for all States, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to see to it that any impediment, resulting from the construction of the wall, to the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination is brought to an end.”

Since the call for BDS in 2005 it has been taken up by a wide range of international civil society and public institutions, including within Scotland. Israel has reacted by making support for BDS illegal within Israel and by its citizens. Israel’s allies and supporters have attempted to stop BDS across the world, through various means including legislation. Groups and organisations in Scotland are entitled to campaign against BDS, just as Palestine solidarity groups are entitled to campaign in support of BDS. If Scotland were to adopt the measures in the Queen’s Speech, it would be restricting the right to engage in legitimate political protest to lobby public bodies to take decisions on whether or not to support BDS, and by so doing would be supporting Israel’s efforts to silence its critics.

The petition does not ask the Scottish Parliament or Scottish Government to support BDS, but rather to protect the right of public bodies to take their own decisions.

The Queen’s speech notes that “There are concerns that such boycotts have legitimised antisemitism”. It is important to note that BDS does not legitimise antisemitism. It is aimed at the violations of international law, UN resolutions and human rights by the Israeli state against the Palestinian people. The call explicitly references the South African boycott which was also against violations of international law and human rights by the South African Apartheid regime. Lord Bracadale, in his final report of the Independent review of Hate Crime legislation in Scotland emphasised that “The right to engage in legitimate political protest is fundamental in a democratic society”, and that this includes political campaigning against the Israeli state, including calling for a boycott. Antisemitism has no place in such a campaign, and the campaign for BDS is clearly distinct from, and opposed to, antisemitism.

Public bodies have a legal responsibility to act within the law. In circumstances where the UK government is negligent in its responsibilities under international law (for example in rendering aid or assistance in maintaining the illegal situation which BDS is aiming to challenge), is it not appropriate for public bodies to apply due diligence in respect to their own legal responsibilities, which may include taking a different approach to purchasing, procurement and investment decisions from those of the UK Government?

I ask that public bodies in Scotland, from the Scottish Government down, are not dictated to by the UK Government’s support for Israel but are entitled to make their own decisions in relation to this international campaign for human rights.

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