Statement of the International Board of FIDH in Support of the right to participate in and call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions
The International Board of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), since its meeting held in Paris from 25-27 March 2016, formally recognizes and reaffirms the right of individuals to peacefully participate in and call for boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) measures to protest against the Israeli government occupation and discrimination policies, and urges States to respect and uphold related rights of freedom of expression, opinion, association, and assembly.
In 2005, Palestinian civil society called on individuals and civil society organizations to apply BDS measures until Israel met its international law obligations. Given the lack of political will to hold Israel accountable, Palestinian activists turned to and were inspired by BDS actions taken in relation to end apartheid in South Africa in order to effect change. Accordingly, the movement was and continues to be a political response to political inaction.
Freedom of Expression and Opinion
As the BDS movement grows in impact, it is increasingly attacked and framed as promoting discrimination or anti-Semitism in an effort to discredit the movement. The attacks against this movement keep escalating1.
In response to such challenges to the legitimacy of the movement, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression when he visited Israel, analysed and recognised the boycotts as “peaceful, legitimate and internationally accepted” actions, that are protected under freedom of expression. As such, manifestations of opinion that criticise the government of Israel for its wrong doing do not fall within the limited exceptions to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights2. Such international acceptance of boycotts is demonstrated by, and based on, the use of boycotts throughout history to register political opposition or prompt political change.3
To the views of the International Board, the BDS movement targets the Israeli government’s longstanding policies of unlawful occupation and discrimination of Palestinians, including through aiding and abetting the occupation. Thus, individuals should have the right to peacefully participate in and call for BDS measures to protest against such policies. These rights are as equally legitimate, lawful and valid as these historical examples of boycotts, and cautions against efforts or initiatives to curtail the rights of freedom of expression, opinion, association, and assembly, including through the criminalization of exercising such rights, on discriminatory grounds including political or other opinion.
It is understood that the rationale of the BDS is to oppose Israel’s military occupation and its policies in the occupied Palestinian territory. Based on this, we express our support to the right to call for or participate in the BDS activities that are in line with our legal stance against racism and discrimination in all forms, including on the basis of race, colour, national or social origin, language, religion, political opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.
UN recognised practice
Adopting economic sanctions is also in line with the spirit and objective of the UN Charter and has been applied in numerous situations, including by the UN Security Council. Such practice is acceptable under human rights law provided that the sanctions apply “political and economic pressure upon the governing élite of the country to persuade them to conform to international law” and be vigilant to -and where necessary mitigate- the potential “collateral infliction of suffering upon the most vulnerable groups within the targeted country”, as recognised by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.4
The International Board highlights historical support by the UN and the international community for BDS measures in relation to other contexts, and is gravely concerned by the increase in domestic legislation which seeks to criminalize and silence BDS activists. Universal human rights, such as freedom of expression, must be impartially upheld; one-sided enforcement of international law standards will only perpetuate the status quo both in Israel and Palestine, and in other areas of conflict.
Human Rights Defenders
In 2O11, Israel adopted a law which made it a civil offense to call for a boycott against Israel.5 In response, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, sent a joint allegation letter stating that the law “violates the right to freedom of opinion and expression (…) and creates further incentives for self-censorship, including on the Internet, to avoid litigation.” 6
The International Board of FIDH emphasizes that individuals peacefully calling for Israel to respect international law, using peaceful means to do so while respecting others' rights, are human rights defenders. As such, they must be protected. Threats against them are symptomatic of the shrinking space for civil society globally. As part of FIDH’s work through the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, we emphasize that activists accordingly calling for BDS must be protected from abusive repressive laws and other state practices.
As similar legislation is proposed or passed worldwide, international human rights NGOs must continue to highlight discrepancies in States policy towards the Israeli discrimination and occupation of Palestinian territory, unequivocally uphold the right of individuals, civil society organizations, and businesses to peacefully support or participate in BDS, and the legal obligation of States, businesses and other organs of the society to refrain from supporting and oppose the discrimination and the occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.