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Churches deem Economic Activity of Public Bodies Bill ‘high-handed’

14 February 2024

‘Singling out’ Israel for ‘special protection’ against boycott campaigns is ‘troubling’

Alamy

A Palestinian flag is unfurled by a crowd outside Downing Street on Monday, in protest against the threatened Israeli assault on Rafah in Gaza, and calling for a ceasefire

A Palestinian flag is unfurled by a crowd outside Downing Street on Monday, in protest against the threatened Israeli assault on Rafah in Gaza, and ca...

A GROUP of Churches and Christian charities have urged the Lords Spiritual to vote against the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, described in the group’s letter as “high-handed” and an “extraordinary and troubling departure from long standing UK policy”.

The Bill, which has been carried over from the previous parliamentary session (2022-23), passed through the House of Commons last year, and its Second Reading in the House of Lords is due on Tuesday. It has been designed to prevent public bodies from boycotting goods or services associated with particular countries through campaigning.

In a joint letter to the 26 bishops in the House of Lords, published last Friday, the 14 signatories, representing the Methodist Church, United Reformed Church, Quakers, and others, write that the Bill, if passed, would prevent democratically elected councils’ and other public bodies’ “considering ethical issues related to the conduct of a foreign state when making investment or procurement decisions”.

Considering alleged or proven complicity in human-rights abuses would, therefore, “be deemed illegal unless explicitly sanctioned” by the Government, they warn.

The letter continues: “Such a high-handed approach on the part of our Government is unprecedented in peacetime, and entirely contrary to the stated goals of the UK Government to uphold international and humanitarian law, free speech, devolved and democratic accountability, and the liberty of the British people and their institutions to stand against injustice, wrongdoing, and illegality.”

Other signatories include Christian Aid, Embrace the Middle East, CAFOD, and the Amos Trust. They warn that, while the stated purpose of the Bill is to address anti-Semitism, doing so by “singling out” Israel for “special protection” against boycott campaigns “accords the State of Israel unique rights in UK law. . .

“Moreover, this special protection for the State of Israel extends to settlements within the occupied Palestinian Territories and the occupied Golan Heights — also highlighted on the face of the Bill. This represents an extraordinary and troubling departure from long standing UK policy which is currently consistent with the position of the UN Security Council and practically the whole of the international community; and which clearly differentiates between the sovereign State of Israel and the territories it occupies which are not and cannot legally be considered part of its sovereign territory.”

This departure is described in the letter as “bewildering” and “more troubling”, given the war in the Middle East. It says that more than 70 civil-society organisations have publicly opposed the Bill, and that “Many more would, but for fear of retribution.” It also says that 40 Israeli NGOs have written to the Conservative and Labour parties urging them not to enact the Bill.

The letter concludes: “We hope you will vote against the Bill and give voice to the concerns of many Christians. As Churches and Christian civil society organisations we believe the Bill to be misguided and undermining of the legitimate right to campaign against injustice.”

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