French conviction of BDS activists violated freedom of expression

European court says 12 BDS activists were wrongly convicted for handing out flyers urging shoppers to boycott Israel

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 file photo, French demonstrators and supporters of Palestinians of the BDS movement hold a placard with the word "Boycott" during a demonstration in Paris. The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday June 11, 2020 that France violated the freedom of expression of pro-Palestinian activists who were convicted for campaigning against Israeli goods. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)
Powered by automated translation

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the French conviction of activists who supported the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement was a breach of freedom of expression.

In Thursday’s ruling, the human rights court overruled France’s Court of Cassation, finding in favour of the BDS activists promoting the boycott of Israeli products.

The ECHR said the criminalisation of the movement, through some of the toughest legislation in the world, was in breach of freedom of expression and ordered the French government to pay damages to the activists.

In 2015, France’s highest appeals court upheld criminal convictions against 12 BDS activists for inciting discrimination. The activists had handed out flyers at a supermarket telling shoppers that buying Israeli goods meant supporting crimes against Palestinians.

The effect of the ruling meant political statements denouncing Israel could be treated as incitement to hatred. French courts cited legislation that had been introduced to address a rise in racist incidents including anti-Semitism perpetrated by the French far-right in 2003.

THe European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France
THe European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France

The ECHR has ordered France to pay damages to each campaigner of €27,380 (Dh114,000) and said there was little scope in European conventions for restrictions on political speech when it did not cross the line and call for violence, hatred or intolerance.

"It's a victory for freedom of expression and civic action," Bertrand Heilbronn, president of the France Palestine Solidarity Associations, said, and added that his organisation would continue to develop the BDS movement.

The Palestinian-led BDS campaign promotes various forms of boycott against Israel, criticising the country for its contravention of human rights and international law. Israel has frequently and consistently denounced the movement as anti-Semitic.

In April, the UK government lost a legal challenge from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign over 2016 guidance instructing local councils not to use pension policies to support boycotts, sanctions or divestment from foreign countries.

The UK Supreme Court found the guidance, which blocked administrators from making decisions of the kind that would support the BDS movement, unlawful.

Israelis protest against West Bank annexation

Israelis protest against West Bank annexation

Focus has returned to the BDS movement as Israel pushes ahead with its plans to annex swathes of territory in the West Bank, delivering on repeated promises made by the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in recent months.

In a visit to Jerusalem, his first trip outside Europe since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Germany's Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, warned Israel that its plan to begin annexation would violate international law.

After meeting Mr Netanyahu and his coalition partner, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the German foreign minister held discussions with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

It remains unclear how Europe or Germany will respond to Israel’s plans, which have the backing of the United States.

Speaking at a Chatham House webinar, Alaa Tartir, a policy adviser at The Palestinian Policy Network, said the prospect of annexation had presented an opportunity to Europe to redefine its policy towards Israel.

“This offers another moment for the international community and particularly Europe to act differently or meaningfully,” he said.

"The questions remain over whether Europe and the international community are ready to seize this moment and engage in different processes to push Israel to take them seriously to take the Europeans in particular seriously."