Who is Richard Hermer, the UK's new 'Israel critic' attorney general?

Who is Richard Hermer, the UK's new 'Israel critic' attorney general?
Richard Hermer has taken on high profile human rights cases and weighed in on issues related to Israel. Who is the UK's new AG and what impact could this have?
4 min read
10 July, 2024
Richard Hermer's appointment has drawn criticism from pro-Israel activists [Getty]

UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer's appointment of Richard Hermer as attorney general has attracted significant attention, particularly due to his previous statements on Israel.

The move by Starmer — who has come under fire for his own stance on the Gaza war — has been welcomed by some pro-Palestinian activists, while supporters of Israel have slammed it.

The choice also came at the expense of Starmer ally Emily Thornberry, who has served as shadow attorney general since 2021.

Observers have speculated that Starmer's choice of Hermer has put an emphasis on expertise over personal loyalty, with a seasoned legal counsel needed to tackle pressing global issues, including the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

Human rights background

Hermer, 55,  comes to his new role after 31 years of bar experience and involvement in some of the UK's most high-profile human rights cases.

As recently as December 2023, Hermer was representing Palestinian former Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu Zubaydah in his case filed against the UK foreign office.

Abu Zubaydah, who says he was subjected to extreme torture in detention at CIA 'black sites', accused British security and intelligence services of complicity in his mistreatment by passing questions to the CIA to be asked in interrogations.

The UK Supreme Court ruled on 20 December that he had the right to sue as the MI5 and MI6 intelligence services under the laws of England and Wales. The foreign office had attempted to argue that the case should be ruled under the laws of the six countries where Abu Zubaydah was renditioned to.

In 2020, Hermer represented Maha Elgizouli, the mother of one of the so-called 'ISIS Beatles' accused of killing British and American citizens. During the case, Hermer argued against the UK being able to share data with US authorities in cases where the defendants could be subjected to capital punishment.

Speaking on his involvement in the case, Hermer emphasised his opposition to the death penalty and upholding the law for all.

"The core issue was whether the rule of law extends even to those accused of the most repugnant acts. Spoiler alert: it does," Hermer told The Times at the time.

Hermer also brought forward judicial review cases on behalf of Afghans that led to the UK's probe into whether British special forces troops had carried out and covered up murders in Afghanistan.

Israel criticism

Despite coming from what he describes as a "'Blue-Box' Jewish family" — referring to pro-Israel donation boxes — and having "dear family members serving" in the Israeli military, Hermer has not shied away from criticism of Israel's actions.

In the aftermath of the Hamas-led 7 October attack on Israel, Hermer was one of several Jewish lawyers to urge Israel to act within international law in its response.

"To be clear, collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war," the letter said. "Equally, international law requires combatants to ensure minimum destruction to civilian life and infrastructure. An intent to cause indiscriminate damage, rather than behaving in a precise manner to minimise damage would, if established, constitute a grave violation of international law."

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Speaking to LBC radio also in October, Hermer said it would be "impossible to conceive" how Israel's siege in Gaza could be in accordance with international law.

The remarks contrast those of Labour leader Keir Starmer, who appeared to say on the same station that Israel "has the right" to cut off water and electricity to Gaza. Starmer later walked back the remarks, but they have remained a key criticism of the new prime minister with regards to Gaza.

In May 2023 — months before the latest war on Gaza — Hermer signed a letter by Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights urging the UK not to obstruct the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) advisory opinion on the "legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory".

'BDS bill' opposition

Hermer also opposed the previous Conservative government's 'anti-BDS' bill — a now-defunct proposal that would have prevented public bodies from enacting boycotts of Israel and other countries.

"This very poorly drafted bill is likely to have a detrimental impact on the United Kingdom's ability to protect and promote human rights overseas, is in certain respects inconsistent with our obligations under international law, will stifle free speech at home… will take powers long exercised by local authorities into the hands of the Secretary of State and will likely lead to an array of illogical outcomes," his opinion read.

Following Hermer's appointment as attorney general on 5 July, pro-Israel activists cited this opposition to the anti-BDS bill as a point of criticism.

“Richard Hermer KC provided a seriously inaccurate opinion to the Labour Party on the last government’s Bill to ban BDS by public authorities and refused to correct it even after I pointed out the inaccuracies,” UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) chief executive Jonathan Turner said.

"I view his appointment with great misgiving," he added.