UK complicit in war crimes: UN experts demand an arms embargo and confirm all arms transfers to Israel likely violate international law

On 23rd February,  UN experts demanded that arms exports to Israel must stop immediately. The unprecedented statement called on all states, including the UK, to immediately halt arms transfers, including export licences and military aid. 

The experts stated, without qualification, that “any transfer of weapons or ammunition to Israel that would be used in Gaza is likely to violate international humanitarian law (IHL) and must cease immediately”. The statement stressed the obligation on all states to ‘ensure respect’ for international humanitarian law by parties to an armed conflict, as required by 1949 Geneva Conventions and international law. 

The experts highlighted obligations already enshrined in UK law, including the Arms Trade Treaty and the UK’s Strategic Export Licensing Criteria. This states that the government will not grant a licence “if it determines there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law.” Transfers of weapons in these circumstances are prohibited. There does not need to be certainty that each specific weapon or component will be used in violation of IHL. 

The experts emphasised that arms companies, and not just governments, have a responsibility to respect human rights and international law. Belgium, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the Japanese company Itochu Corporation have already suspended arms transfers to Israel. 

Since 7th October, the UK government has made every attempt to evade parliamentary scrutiny of its decision to continue arms exports to Israel, despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes, violations of international law, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Israel is plausibly committing genocide against Palestinian people in Gaza. Foreign Secretary David Cameron misled the Foreign Affairs Committee in oral evidence, and continues to evade questions from the Committee’s Chair, Alicia Kearns. Legal documents which came to light following an application for Judicial Review by Al Haq and GLAN, show that Cameron personally advised the Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch to continue issuing licences for arms exports to Israel. 

On Monday 19th February, the High Court refused permission to GLAN and Al-Haq to proceed with their case against the UK government. This refusal was partly based on the court accepting that the government’s rolling review process on export licences to Israel meant it was complying with international law. GLAN and Al-Haq are challenging the decision. 

Emily Apple, spokesperson for CAAT said:

“The High Court has just denied permission for a legal case against the government’s continued arming of Israel to proceed. It relied on the government’s supposed adherence to a rolling review of arms sales to justify this decision.”

“However, this UN statement shows that this rolling review process is not fit for purpose. This government has repeatedly prioritised the profits of arms dealers over the lives of Palestinian people. It has found any flimsy excuse it can to justify continuing arms exports despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes amounting to a genocide. There can be no more excuses. This government, and UK arms companies, are not only complicit in the war crimes Israel is committing, they are themselves breaching international law. There are no options left. Arms exports to Israel must be halted immediately.”

Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, GLAN Director said:

“States must halt weapons exports to Israel if they are to avoid complicity in serious violations of international law. The statement released by numerous UN experts highlights why we need UK courts to re-consider their dismissal of our legal challenge to halt UK weapons exports to Israel. In the meantime great political scrutiny is needed especially as other countries opt to halt their exports on the basis of their legal obligations.”

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