UK risks breaching international law by continuing to arm Israel, Rishi Sunak warned

4 April 2024, 06:48 | Updated: 4 April 2024, 07:36

Rishi Sunak defends UK's ‘careful export licensing regime' amid growing pressure to cease arms sales to Israel
Rishi Sunak defends UK's ‘careful export licensing regime' amid growing pressure to cease arms sales to Israel. Picture: Alamy

By Jenny Medlicott

Rishi Sunak has been warned that continuing to export weapons to Israel could be a breach of international law.

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More than 600 lawyers and experts, including three former Supreme Court justices, made the warning in a letter over the situation in Gaza.

The International Court of Justice concluded that there is a 'plausible risk of genocide' and the UK is therefore legally obliged to prevent it.

Supreme Court President Lady Hale, former Supreme Court justices Lord Sumption and Lord Wilson were among those to sign the 17-page letter, alongside nine other judges and 69 KCs.

The signatories said: "While we welcome the increasingly robust calls by your government for a cessation of fighting and the unobstructed entry to Gaza of humanitarian assistance, simultaneously to continue... the sale of weapons and weapons systems to Israel... falls significantly short of your government's obligations under international law."

On Wednesday evening, Mr Sunak defended his decision to continue the UK’s “careful export licensing regime” amid mounting calls to cease all arms sales to Israel.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak makes a statement to the media during a visit to Aldersyde Day Nursery in Hartlepool
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak makes a statement to the media during a visit to Aldersyde Day Nursery in Hartlepool. Picture: Alamy

It comes after the killing of seven aid workers, including three British nationals, in an Israeli drone strike in Gaza on Monday night.

The Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and senior foreign policy figures - including a former UK national security adviser - have all called for UK sales of arms to be suspended.

Labour, meanwhile, said arms sales must stop if government lawyers believe Israel is at risk of breaching international law.

But Rishi Sunak has defended the sales, saying the UK has a "careful export licensing regime".

The Prime Minister said he has "been consistently clear" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must protect civilian lives.

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The Prime Minister told The Sun: "I think we've always had a very careful export licensing regime that we adhere to.

"There are a set of rules, regulations and procedures that we'll always follow, and I have been consistently clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu since the start of this conflict that while of course we defend Israel's right to defend itself and its people against attacks from Hamas, they have to do that in accordance with international humanitarian law, protect civilian lives and, sadly, too many civilians have already lost their lives.

"Get more aid into Gaza: That's what we've consistently called for and what we want to see actually is an immediate humanitarian pause to allow more aid in, and crucially the hostages to be released, and that's what we'll continue to push for."

John Chapman (left), James Henderson (middle), James Kirby (right) were killed in the air strike.
John Chapman (left), James Henderson (middle), James Kirby (right) were killed in the air strike. Picture: World Central Kitchen

Aid organisation World Central Kitchen (WCK) confirmed British victims John Chapman, 57, James "Jim" Henderson, 33, and James Kirby, 47, who were working for the charity's security team, were among seven of its staff killed when their convoy was struck after unloading food in Gaza on Monday night.

Australian Lalzawmi "Zomi" Frankcom, American-Canadian dual citizen Jacob Flickinger, Polish national Damian Sobol and Palestinian Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha were also killed in the drone strike.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has also called on the Government to suspend arms sales to Israel, calling it "completely unacceptable".

The Lib Dem leader said: "The deaths of these British aid workers in Gaza is an absolute disgrace. These brave people were trying to help starving families in Gaza.

"Clearly, the thought that British-made arms could have been used in strikes such as these is completely unacceptable.

"The Government must take swift action to suspend arms exports to Israel. We must redouble our efforts to secure an immediate bilateral ceasefire."

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The SNP has meanwhile said MPs should return to the House of Commons early from their Easter break to "debate and vote on ending arms sales to Israel".

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron has in recent weeks come under pressure from across the political spectrum to publish legal advice he has received about UK arms exports to Israel.

Export licences could not continue to be granted for UK arms heading to Israel if there is a risk weapons could be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Before MPs left Parliament for the Easter recess, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell told the Commons UK arms exports amount to "0.02% of Israel's military imports" when questioned about the legal advice by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy.

Stephen Flynn, the SNP's Westminster leader has written to Mr Sunak, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, calling for an immediate recall of Parliament.

He wrote: "This situation demands that the Prime Minister comes to Parliament without further delay to outline the UK Government's response to the killing of UK citizens by Israel, to enable MPs to scrutinise the UK Government's response, and so that Parliament can finally debate and vote on ending arms sales to Israel."