Civil servants threaten to stop work over arms sales to Israel

4 April 2024, 19:34 | Updated: 4 April 2024, 19:48

Civil servants could threaten to stop working over arms sales to Israel
Civil servants could threaten to stop working over arms sales to Israel. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Flaminia Luck

Civil servants could stop working over fears they could be complicit in war crimes in Gaza if Israel is found to have broken international law.

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The union which represents civil servants, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), said it was considering taking legal action to prevent its members in the department for Business and Trade "from being forced to carry out unlawful acts".

PCS said that the government has an "obligation to do all it can to halt the onslaught".

"As it does not appear to be willing to do so, we are seriously considering taking legal action to prevent our members from being forced to carry out unlawful acts," Paul O'Connor, the union's head of bargaining said.

"We do not take such cases lightly and we only do so where we have reasonable prospect of winning."

In January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was asked to consider whether Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza after South Africa brought a case against them.

House hit by an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip
House hit by an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Picture: Alamy

PCS sent a letter to the department on Wednesday, saying: "Given the implications for our members we believe there are ample grounds to immediately suspend all such work.

"We therefore request that you meet with us urgently to discuss this matter and cease work immediately," the letter, seen by Sky News, says.

The letter demonstrates the PCS has been asking the government for its legal advice on arming Israel since January, when the preliminary ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Israel's acts in Gaza could amount to genocide.

A response to the union dated 13 March said "the question of criminal liability for civil servants is very unlikely to arise".

However, the department said it can't share the legal advice it is receiving as it is "confidential".

Israeli attacks on Gaza continue
Israeli attacks on Gaza continue. Picture: Getty

Labour MP John McDonnell, a founding member of the PCS union group in parliament, said the government must "come clean" and that "civil servants should not be put at risk".

"The Rome Statute covering war crimes is clear that following a superior's instructions is not a defence when it comes to charges of war crimes. The government must come clean on the legal advice they have."

Read more: Family of British charity worker James Kirby killed in Israel airstrike demands apology from 'disrespectful' Netanyahu

A government spokesperson said: “We keep advice on Israel’s adherence to International Humanitarian Law under review and will act in accordance with that advice.

“All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Strategic Export Licensing Criteria.”

Rishi Sunak has come under growing pressure to suspend arms sales to Israel after three British aid workers were killed in an airstrike in Gaza on Monday.

The three workers - who have been named as John Chapman, James Kirby and James Henderson - were delivering food parcles for the charity, World Central Kitchen.

The deaths have sparked outcry and outrage, including condemnation from world leaders.

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