Concerns UK's UNRWA defunding decision based on 'claims made through torture'

Concerns UK's UNRWA defunding decision based on 'claims made through torture'
Rights groups have urged the prime minister to ensure that its decision to suspend funding was not based on coerced information by Israeli authorities
4 min read
06 April, 2024
UNRWA has said it has received testimonies that detainees were forced into making false statements about the agency's links to Hamas [GETTY/Archive]

The UK could be breaching its own obligations on the prevention of torture in its decision to suspend funding to the UN Palestinian refugee agency following reports that Israel used torture to gain information, charities have warned.

UK rights groups Freedom From Torture and Redress have written to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with concerns that the decision to pull funding for UNRWA was based on information obtained by use of torture.

The letter references a February report by UNRWA, which detailed testimonies of abuse and torture at the hands of Israeli authorities, including instances where Palestinian detainees were coerced into falsely stating that the agency has links to Hamas and that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attacks.

The UK pulled its funding alongside other major donor parties, such as the US and European Union, in late January following Israel’s major claim that 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel which killed around 1,200 people and saw the group take 253 captives.

The open letter sent by Freedom from Torture and Redress on Friday calls on the prime minister to ensure that intelligence provided by Israeli authorities and used by the UK in its decision has not been obtained by methods of torture.

It asks that the government ensures that "the UK takes no receipt of, and makes no use of intelligence provided by Israel or other authorities where there is a real risk that it has been obtained by torture or other ill-treatment".

The letter urges the prime minister "to publicly repudiate reliance on intelligence material and/or 'confessions' obtained using torture".

"We urge you to urgently call for independent monitors and lawyers to have access to Palestinians in Israeli detention facilities".

The UNRWA report said that staff members, and other Palestinian detainees, were subject to "severe physical beatings, waterboarding, and threats of harm to family members".

Freedom From Torture and Redress warn that the UK is at risk of breaching its obligations on the prevention of torture if the information it based its decision on was obtained through torture or ill-treatment of Palestinians, as the UNRWA report alleges.

The UK is party to Article 15 of the UN Convention Against Torture in which states should not use information which has been given through torture as evidence "in any proceedings".

The rights groups point out that it is also a rule of customary international law, to which the UK has obligations.

The letter calls on the government to urgently review its decision and to publicly condemn torture on "all sides of the conflict" in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

It adds that there is a longstanding precedent of the use of torture by Israeli authorities against Palestinians and highlights the surge in arrests of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as abuse by Israeli prison guards since the start of the war in October, including several deaths of Palestinians in jail.

Israel has still not presented evidence to the claims made in January. No external body, whether media outlets or government, has been able to independently verify the allegations.

It triggered a major funding crisis for the agency, which supports 1.9 million displaced Palestinians across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Several countries have since reinstated funding, including Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Finland and Sweden.

Despite growing pressure to resume funding, the British government has said it is waiting on the findings of two reviews, one from an internal UN inspectorate body and the other led by a former French foreign minister.

Last week, lawyers for a British-Palestinian man announced a judicial case against the British government for its decision to suspend UNRWA funding over concerns for the wellbeing of the man's family, refugees in Jabalia camp in north Gaza.