Pension funds can divest from Palestinian occupation firms, court rules

Billy Briggs, The Ferret,

Human rights campaigners in Scotland have welcomed a ruling by the UK’s Supreme Court that council pension funds can divest from firms operating in Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.

In a landmark verdict, the court ruled in favour of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in a legal case viewed as a major defeat for the UK government.

UK ministers wanted to limit the possibility of Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS) divesting from companies involved in, or profiting from, Israel’s activities in places such as the West Bank.

Critics of Israel have hailed the decision as an “historic victory” for Palestinian rights and said the UK government should “not be dictating” how pension schemes choose to invest funds.

The Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland said the judgement was “of little importance” and claimed that boycotting Israel is “anti-Semitic”.

The verdict marks the end of a four-year legal battle between the UK government and PSC. Guidance issued in 2016 by ministers said that “using pension policies to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and UK defence industries are inappropriate”.

Human rights activists and advocates of free speech viewed the guidance as an attempt to curb the rise of the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The UK government’s guidance did not apply to funds in Scotland. But the Supreme Court’s verdict has been welcomed north of the border by various groups who say the UK government should not be dictating how pension funds make investment decisions.

BDS is an international campaign that encourages ethical divestment from companies that financially back the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, in the hope it will change behaviour.

Critics of BDS claim the movement is anti-Semitic and represents an “existential threat” to Israel. They include successive Conservative UK governments which have tried to limit BDS-supporting councils from divesting funds from firms operating in the West Bank, where illegal settlements are being built.

In bringing the legal case, the PSC raised concerns about threats to freedom of expression, government overreach in local democracy, and the right of pension holders to have a say in how funds invest and divest.

The initial UK government guidance issued in 2016 came after councillors in several UK cities passed motions forcing pension funds to divest from companies operating in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

In 2017 the High Court agreed with the PSC’s lawyers that the UK government guidance was unlawful. This decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2018. But this week’s Supreme Court ruling in favour of the PSC finally decides the matter.

The ruling comes just months after the UK government announced its intention to ban public bodies from boycotting Israel and other countries, in a new attempt to counter the BDS movement.

The move was widely condemned by human rights campaigners as an attack on civil liberties and the Scottish Parliament has been petitioned on the issue.

The petition urges “urge the Scottish Government to support the right of public bodies and institutions in Scotland to debate, (and where democratically supported) to endorse and implement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against foreign countries and those who trade with them”.

David Myles, national secretary of the Scottish Palestine Soldarity Campaign, welcomed the judgement. He was “slightly surprised” at the decision because the “UK establishment has for years turned a blind eye to Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people,” he said.

“The decision of the appeal court to overturn the initial decision was completely perverse. So really, the Supreme Court is only stating the absolutely obvious.”

Myles added: “Despite this, Boris and his far right colleagues announced in December via the Queen’s Speech that they are complicit in protecting Israel’s abuses by seeking to bring forward legislation preventing public bodies making ethical purchasing decisions in the context of not buying goods from apartheid regimes.”

Myles accused critics of the BDS movement of falsely claiming it was anti-Semitic in order to “to protect Israel from criticism of its racist policies”.

He said: “There is little doubt that the mood of the country is swinging behind solidarity with the oppressed Palestinian people. And as with the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Israeli one will also fail.”

A spokesman for the Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland (COFIS) said: “Our view is that this judgement is of little importance. It relates only to whether the Secretary of State (Savid Javid at the time) has acted beyond his powers, and only to England and Wales.

“The legal action was rumbling on for some time, and it has been superseded by the UK government’s manifesto commitment, reaffirmed in the Queen’s Speech, to ‘ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries. These undermine community cohesion.’

COFIS also pointed out that in the past year, the parliaments of both Germany and Austria have branded the BDS movement as “anti-Semitic”, adding “we concur with this view”.

“The priority now must be to ensure both that the UK government sticks to its commitment and that, as a foreign policy matter, the future ban applies uniformly across the UK,” COFIS said.