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Lord Peter Hain slams Tory Bill that would ban boycotts of Israeli settler products

Lord Peter Hain slams Tory Bill that would ban boycotts of Israeli settler products
British Labour Lord Peter Hain. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images)

Lord Peter Hain told the House of Lords such a Bill would have prevented UK councils from boycotting apartheid South Africa.

British Labour Lord Peter Hain, a former anti-apartheid campaigner, has slammed the UK’s Conservative Party for introducing legislation which would ban UK public authorities, such as councils, local government pension funds or universities, from boycotting products coming from Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Hain told the House of Lords on Tuesday that if the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill had been enacted in the 1980s it would have prevented British public authorities from boycotting apartheid South Africa. 

“This is another pernicious piece of legislation of an authoritarian government attacking the freedom to protest against injustice and oppression — except when the government approves.  

“It is a Bill of which Vladimir Putin could have been proud,” Hain said, because it would prevent public authorities from making ethical choices about spending or investment.

“This Conservative Party is on the wrong side of history as it was over the fight against the most institutionalised system of racism the world has ever seen, namely apartheid.” 

Hain noted that the Conservatives under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had introduced similar legislation in 1988 to try to prevent boycotts of South African goods — but it had failed.

He said the Bill was abolishing the right of British citizens to make their own choices because only Russia and Belarus would be exempt from the ban on boycotts. 

“So Tory ministers support boycotts against Putin’s Russia over his barbaric attacks on Ukraine but want to ban even those advocating boycotts of Israeli products from their settlers in the West Bank who have stolen Palestinian land in flagrant breach of international law.”

He added that the Bill would also prevent public bodies from taking boycott action over China’s oppressive treatment of Uyghur Muslims or the Myanmar junta’s genocidal banishment of Rohingya Muslims.

“The Bill violates UN Security Council Resolution 2,334, which the UK voted for, which declares Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, as legally invalid and a clear violation of international law. 

Special protection

“The Bill explicitly designates Israel for special protection and seems to encompass the illegally occupied territories within its definition of Israel,” Hain said. 

“Surely local authorities should have the discretion to make ethical decisions in line with the preferences of their constituents and the freedom to align with international law and exercise due diligence in procurement?”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel will have to negotiate with Hamas, says Peter Hain

He recalled that in 1988, Thatcher, having denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, had imposed restrictions on “political action” by local councils in support of Mandela. 

“This Bill echoes a part of her 1988 Local Government Act to prevent local authorities from boycotting goods from apartheid South Africa, as she attempted to shore up its economy.”

Hain detailed how many local UK authorities had decided not to buy apartheid goods. Sheffield, Cambridge, Newcastle, Glasgow and most inner London boroughs ended all links to apartheid South Africa by withdrawing pension fund investments from companies with South African subsidiaries and barring its whites-only sports teams from playing on their fields. 

By 1985, more than 120 local councils had taken some form of anti-apartheid initiative, ranging from banning South African products in their schools to granting the freedom of their city to Nelson Mandela.

“The 1988 legislation did not work. By the time the Act came into effect, the apartheid regime was collapsing, and the release of Nelson Mandela was looming.”

Impact for good

Hain said the right to boycott was a principle that had had a massive impact for good, especially in South Africa. 

“Democratically elected local authorities should be able to use their resources in ways which do not sustain oppressive regimes where human rights are violated,” Hain said. 

He recalled that for 35 years a consumer boycott was at the heart of anti-apartheid campaigns.

“Hundreds of thousands of British people who never attended a meeting or demonstration showed their opposition to apartheid by refusing to buy goods from South Africa. 

“I took part in action to plaster ‘Danger: Product of Apartheid’ stickers on South African products in supermarkets,” he recalled.

“From the early 1970s, almost every university and college in Britain organised some form of anti-apartheid boycott action. At more than half, students called on the university authorities to sell shareholdings in British companies with South African interests and pressed for total disinvestment from South Africa.”

He said their protests drove Barclays Bank off campuses, forcing it to close down its South African operations.  

“The British Anti-Apartheid Movement’s boycott campaign was hugely successful, only lifted in September 1993 after South Africa was irrevocably set on the path to democratic elections.”

Yet Hain said that barrister Richard Hermer KC had stated in his legal opinion on this Bill, “Had legislation of this nature been in effect in the 1980s it would have rendered it unlawful to refuse to source goods from apartheid South Africa.”

He called on his fellow lords to “dismember” the Bill “and stand up for human rights worldwide”. DM


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