BDS Movement Decoded: Rethinking Economic Activism for Peace

BDS stands for “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. In essence, it is a worldwide nonviolent protest movement that seeks to use economic, cultural, and financial boycotts, divestment, and government sanctions against Israel to compel the country to comply with international law and cease its apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians.

The BDS movement is a global grassroots campaign that aims to exert economic and political pressure on Israel in response to its occupation of Palestinian territories, violation of human rights, and other controversial policies. BDS stands for “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” At its most basic, it is a worldwide nonviolent protest movement that seeks to use economic, cultural, and financial boycotts, divestment, and government sanctions against Israel to compel the country to comply with international law and cease its apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians.

BDS draws its inspiration directly from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, both of which used boycotts to achieve their goals. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the most vociferous proponents of BDS, famously described the similarities between apartheid and Israel as “painfully stark.”

Amid the clampdown by the US government, student protests calling for justice for the victims of the Israeli massacre in Gaza have gained traction on America’s elite campuses. In Pakistan and other Muslim countries, people are also quietly expressing their grievances by boycotting products and brands associated with sanctioned identities or cultures.

Protesters on major US campuses are calling for their universities to cut ties with Israel and companies supporting what they see as an unfair conflict. There have been reports of harassment and vandalism targeting employees and locations of Western brands in Pakistan, particularly in smaller towns. This has led to some overseas companies reducing their presence in the country due to safety concerns and decreased business. Some have closed vulnerable outlets or postponed expansion plans.

In a recent development, Alshaya Group, the Middle East franchise holder of Starbucks, revealed plans to reduce its workforce by about 2,000 employees, representing roughly 4% of its total staff. This move was attributed to challenging business conditions and follows boycotts at regional and global levels targeting prominent companies such as McDonald’s, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Disney, and others believed to have ties to Israel or its military.

Many may be pondering: Can boycotts on their own be sufficient to impact companies and bring about change?

For those optimistic about the potential of boycotts to instigate change, there is encouraging news. Research conducted by Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth indicates that only approximately 3.5% of the population is required to drive political transformations. This suggests that even when advocates for change are in the minority, their actions can still have a significant impact.

History offers numerous instances of successful boycotts. For instance, consider the campaign in England in 1791 urging a boycott of sugar produced by slave traders. This led to a decrease in profits and a shift in public sentiment against the transatlantic slave trade, ultimately resulting in its abolition a few decades later.

Significantly, the anti-apartheid boycotts against South Africa urged global consumers to “Check the Label.” Alongside broader international and domestic activism and pressure on Western governments, these boycotts played a pivotal role in the eventual dismantling of the apartheid regime in 1994.

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement officially began 19 years ago in 2005, after the International Court of Justice declared that Israel’s security barriers in the West Bank violated international law. This decision sparked a worldwide effort to bring attention to the Palestinian cause and push for an end to Israel’s apartheid policies.

However, the BDS movement has encountered a deluge of criticism. One prevalent critique is that it may have a detrimental impact on Palestinians by diminishing job opportunities and other economic prospects, rather than providing assistance. Similar arguments were used against boycotts and sanctions targeting apartheid-era South Africa.

While the BDS movement advocates for political and economic pressure on Israel to address Palestinian rights issues, its disadvantages stem from its approach and consequences. Critics argue that BDS can hinder constructive dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, potentially impeding the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Moreover, BDS initiatives often face accusations of unfairly targeting Israel while overlooking other nations with comparable or worse human rights records.

Additionally, the movement’s call for boycotts and sanctions can have unintended economic repercussions, affecting individuals and businesses unrelated to the Israeli government and potentially exacerbating hardships for both Israelis and Palestinians alike. These complexities underscore the challenges inherent in the BDS movement and the necessity for nuanced approaches to achieving a just and lasting peace in the region.

In Pakistan, even though they are hesitant to issue an official statement, top officials of department store chains in the country have privately acknowledged a shift in consumer preferences towards local options for beverages like soft drinks, juices, bottled water, packaged milk, and dairy products including butter, cheese, creams, and spreads. Over the last six months, there has been a noticeable trend of about twelve outlets of well-known Western companies closing down, with a reported sales drop ranging from 20% to 30%.

In response to this shift, local brands such as Cola Next and Gourmet Cola have rapidly expanded their presence in the market. At the same time, unsuccessful brands like Master Cola are said to be gearing up to reopen their shuttered factories to take advantage of the growing demand for domestic drinks.

A franchise owner, whose store was targeted in mob violence, criticized the endangerment of lives and property in the name of a supposed noble cause. They highlighted the importance of not blindly following agitators with potential hidden agendas, stating an example with Coke in Pakistan, which is actually a subsidiary of a Turkish company, Coca-Cola Icecek, not the US-based Coca-Cola International. Many companies presumed to be American are actually listed on the country’s stock exchange with minimal American shareholding.

Moreover, the boycott is negatively impacting Pakistani workers at every stage of the supply chain. While large corporations can typically handle financial losses, employees and suppliers in Pakistan may not have the same ability. Officials from economic ministries had little information to provide on the government’s plans to address shifting market dynamics, particularly in response to worries from international investors and the need to attract new foreign direct investment to address the investment shortfall.

The Divestment aspect of BDS urges companies to avoid conducting business with Israeli firms, encourages investors to refrain from investing in Israel, and advises banks and pension funds against using customer funds to support the Israeli economy. Previously, BDS has effectively influenced government pension funds in Luxembourg, New Zealand, and Norway to divest from Israel. The “S” in BDS advocates for sanctions against Israel, which involve implementing an arms embargo and halting military aid, as well as discontinuing trade and diplomatic relations with Israel.

Boycotts targeting Israel go beyond just scrutinizing consumer purchases. BDS calls on its advocates to avoid engaging with Israeli cultural entities and to avoid collaborating with Israeli universities and scholars that are accused of perpetuating dehumanizing narratives about Palestinians and the territories under occupation.

From bus boycott to fossil fuels divestment, the tactics employed by BDS have a well-documented track record as some of the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Embracing and utilizing these tactics at this critical juncture for humanity is a moral imperative.

Organized groups of consumers hold the ability to boycott companies that support illegal settlements or produce Israeli weapons. Trade unions can advocate for their pension funds to divest from such entities. Municipal governments can choose contractors based on ethical standards that prohibit these partnerships.

Omar Barghouti, a key figure in the establishment and leadership of the BDS movement, emphasizes that “The most profound ethical obligation in these times is to act to end complicity. Only thus can we truly hope to end oppression and violence”

The obligation is especially pressing for those whose governments persist in providing Israel with lethal arms, profitable trade agreements, and support through UN vetoes. BDS serves as a reminder that we are not obligated to passively accept these morally questionable alliances and let them speak for us unchallenged.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
A thought leader and youth activist with main focus areas being Sustainable Development, Political Economy, Development Justice and Advocacy. A member of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY). Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP).