3 former UK Supreme Court justices urge government to place arms embargo on Israel

Over 600 legal professionals say London obligated to halt weapons sales, review trade deals, sanction Israelis inciting against Palestinians; they point to World Court ruling

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in this undated handout photo released on April 4, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in this undated handout photo released on April 4, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Three former British Supreme Court justices, including a former president of the court, have written a letter to the UK government saying it is obligated under international law to impose an arms embargo on Israel because of what they described as “serious breaches of International Humanitarian Law” during its ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza.

The three justices, along with another nine former judges, and some 600 other senior legal professionals and academics, also insisted that the British government was obligated to review the existing trade agreement between the UK and Israel, suspend the 2030 Road Map for UK-Israel bilateral relations, and impose sanctions on Israeli figures “who have made statements inciting genocide against Palestinians.”

The signatories included Baroness Hale of Richmond, the former president of the Supreme Court, along with former Supreme Court justices Lord Jonathan Sumption and Lord Nicholas Wilson.

In their letter issued on Wednesday, the former judges, kings counsels, barristers, legal academics and solicitors based their assertion that the UK is legally obligated to take action Israel largely on the January ruling by the International Court of Justice that it was plausible that Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza falls under the scope of the Genocide Convention.

The ICJ issued provisional measures against Israel as a result, focusing specifically on Israel’s obligation to provide Gazans with humanitarian aid as a result of the Genocide Convention prohibition on creating conditions designed to bring about the destruction of life. The ICJ issued a new measure just last week based on this obligation, ordering Israel to ensure “the unhindered provision at scale” of humanitarian assistance to the war-torn territory.

The UK government at the time said it had “considerable concerns” about the ICJ ruling, and rejected the idea that Israel was carrying out a genocide, saying that “South Africa’s decision to bring the case was wrong and provocative.”

An exterior view shows the facade of the Supreme Court in London, September 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The British legal professionals wrote in their letter this week that the ICJ’s “order for provisional measures” makes the relevancy of the Genocide Convention to the ongoing war in Gaza clear, noting the UK’s responsibilities under the convention to “prevent and punish genocide.”

It also references the comments of numerous UN agencies and officials about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, including famine warnings by the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and the UN secretary-general.

“The provision of military assistance and material to Israel may render the UK complicit in genocide as well as serious breaches of IHL,” write the former judges and legal professionals.

The letter also demanded that the UK suspend planned steps for furthering a “strategic partnership” with Israel and negotiations for extending and deepening trade and investment, arguing that the UK’s obligations under the Genocide Convention require it to “employ all means reasonably available” to prevent genocide.

Other measures the judges and lawyers called for were to “work actively and effectively to secure a permanent ceasefire in Gaza,” and “ensure safe access to and delivery of the essentials of existence and medical assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.”

“The present situation in the Gaza Strip is catastrophic, and the International Court of Justice has held that there is a plausible risk of genocide being committed against the Palestinian people in Gaza,” reads the letter.

While the letter commended the government for its call for a ceasefire and a boost in humanitarian aid, it said that the ongoing sales of weapons and the suspension of funding to UNRWA “falls significantly short of your Government’s obligations under international law.”

A Palestinian flag flaps in the air by a message reading ‘Stop bombs’ projected on The Elizabeth Tower, at the Palace of Westminster, in London on February 21, 2024. (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Several days ago, the UK’s Observer newspaper reported leaked recordings of Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, the chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, saying that the UK government was told by its legal advisers that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza, but has not made this public.

“The Foreign Office has received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law but the government has not announced it… they have not said it, they haven’t stopped arms exports,” Kearns reportedly said during an evening drinks reception on March 13.

Such advice would require the British government to cease arms sales to Israel and prevent the UK from sharing intelligence with Jerusalem, the Observer reported.

The UK provides a very small amount of Israel’s overall arms purchases, with data showing that 69 percent come from US firms, 30% from Germany and 0.9% from Italy, with all other countries making up 0.1% of the country’s defense imports.

In March, Canada suspended arms sales to Israel, citing the military campaign in Gaza, following a non-binding vote in the Canadian House of Commons that also referenced the ICJ’s ruling and provisional measures against Israel as a basis for Ottawa’s legal obligation to take action against Israel.

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