Former top UK judges tell government 'stop arming Israel' or risk breaking international law

Former top UK judges tell government 'stop arming Israel' or risk breaking international law
Over 600 British legal experts, including former members of the state's highest judicial body, have warned Sunak that his government must stop arming Israel.
3 min read
04 April, 2024
Leading former UK judges have spoken out against the war on Gaza [Getty]

Over 600 legal experts, including three former British Supreme Court justices, have warned the UK government that by continuing to arm Israel it risks violating international law.

In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday evening, the signatories — comprising former Court of Appeal judges and over 60 King’s Counsels (KCs) — describe the current conditions in Gaza as "catastrophic".

They said the UK has a legal obligation to prevent genocide in Gaza, stemming from the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) interim ruling in January that Israel's actions could plausibly constitute genocide.

The 17-page letter also serves as a legal opinion, meaning it could be used against the UK government if it were ever to be held to account for continuing to sell arms to Israel as it wages a war on Gaza, which could be proven to be genocidal at a later date by the ICJ.

"The ICJ’s conclusion that there exists a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza has placed your government on notice that weapons might be used in its commission and that the suspension of their provision is thus a ‘means likely to deter’ and/or ‘a measure to prevent’ genocide," the letter reads.

The intervention by British legal experts comes as fellow Conservative MPs ramp up pressure on Sunak to stand up to Tel Aviv after seven World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid workers, including three UK citizens, were killed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on Monday.

Sources within the Conservative Party indicate that the Foreign Secretary David Cameron has advocated for a tougher stance towards Israel by the government, but has faced opposition from Downing Street, according to The Guardian.

Three Conservative backbenchers, and a former minister now in the House of Lords, have called for the UK to halt arms exports to Israel following the airstrike.

Results from a YouGov survey conducted before the airstrike indicate that both the government and Labour are not aligned with public opinion.

The poll shows a significant majority of voters, 56 percent to 17 percent, support an arms embargo.

Live Story

Following the killing of the aid workers, Sunak told British media that an independent investigation should be carried out into the airstrike, but stopped short of saying arms sales to Israel should end.

He claimed that his government had been "consistently clear" with Israel that it must follow international humanitarian law.

However, the legal experts disagree with the prime minister.

They say his government has not gone far enough and that measures such as an arms embargo and imposing sanctions on Israeli officials "who have made statements inciting genocide against Palestinians" should be made.

They also called for the UK to reinstate funding to Palestinian aid agency UNRWA and highlighted that it was necessary for the "effective entry and distribution of the means of existence to Palestinians in Gaza, and by extension the prevention of genocide".

Since 2008, the UK has approved arms sales to Israel totalling more than £574 million, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Arms export licences, which are granted by the business department, cannot be issued if there is a clear risk the weapons could be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Former MI6 chief Alex Younger said Israel's military campaign in Gaza has "bordered on the reckless" with more than 33,000 Palestinians killed since October, the vast majority civilians.

The outrage by key figures in the UK establishment - many of them known for their past sympathy for Israel - will likely pile pressure on Sunak to take tougher action against Israel.