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Former Supreme Court judges: UK arms sales to Israel breach international law

In an open letter, judges joined lawyers and academics in accusing the UK government of failing 'to comply with its own obligations under the Genocide Convention'
Palestinians walk past the ruins of houses destroyed during Israel's military offensive on Gaza, on 20 March 2024 (Reuters)

Over 600 prominent lawyers, academics and former judges, including former Supreme Court President Lady Hale and two other former justices in the court have signed a letter warning the UK government that it is breaching international law by continuing to arm Israel.

The open letter, which was published on Wednesday, described the present situation in Gaza as “catastrophic” and castigated the UK government for “falling significantly short” of its obligations under international law regarding arms sales to Israel. 

Citing the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s ruling in the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel, which found that there is a plausible risk that genocide is being committed in Gaza, the letter warned that the UK is legally bound to suspend arms sales to Israel.

It went on to say that the UK has so far failed “to comply with its own obligations under the Genocide Convention,” potentially incurring “UK state responsibility for the commission of an international wrong.”

Additionally, the letter called upon the government to work towards a permanent ceasefire, and to impose sanctions “against individuals and entities who have made statements inciting genocide against Palestinians”.

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It also urged the government to reinstate funding for Unrwa, the United Nations' agency for Palestinian refugees, which was suspended following unsubstantiated Israeli allegations that some of the agency’s staff members were involved in the Hamas-led attack on 7 October. 

This would be an essential step towards securing “effective entry and distribution of the means of existence to Palestinians in Gaza, and by extension the prevention of Genocide,” the letter said.

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The letter noted “significant developments” since a previous letter sent in October, including the ICJ interim ruling, the rocketing Palestinian death toll, which has now exceeded 32,000, the “deliberate infliction of starvation” by Israel, Israel's targeting of humanitarian and medical facilities and workers, and reports of degrading and inhumane treatment of Palestinian civilians.

The fact that the latest letter is signed by senior retired judges, including former Supreme Court justices Lord Sumption and Lord Wilson, who normally refrain from publicly commenting on the issue, is significant.

The letter comes amid mounting pressure on the UK government following the killing of seven international aid workers by targeted Israeli air strikes, with three Conservative backbenchers and one former minister calling on the UK to halt arms sales to Israel.

On 29 March, over 50 MPs and members of the House of Lords signed a letter to Foreign Secretary David Cameron, urging the government to reinstate funding for Unrwa "without delay".

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