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UK appoints new attorney general critical of Israeli rights violations

Richard Hermer strongly opposed the anti-BDS bill and was among the Jewish lawyers urging Israel to respect international law in Gaza
Britain's Attorney General Richard Hermer arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on 6 July 2024 (AFP/Paul Ellis)
Britain's Attorney General Richard Hermer arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on 6 July 2024 (AFP/Paul Ellis)
By Rayhan Uddin in London

The new British government has appointed Richard Hermer, an experienced lawyer who has often spoken out against Israeli breaches of international law, as the country’s attorney general. 

Prime Minister Keir Starmer, whose Labour Party won a landslide majority in this week’s election, selected Hermer as the chief legal adviser to the government on Friday. 

The attorney general oversees the Government Legal Department, the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service (which Starmer led between 2008 and 2013), among other responsibilities.

Hermer, 55, is not a member of parliament and will instead be given a life peerage to sit in the House of Lords. 

With 31 years of experience at the bar, Hermer specialises in human rights, as well as public and environmental law.

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He was previously at Doughty Street Chambers, where Starmer also worked, before moving to Matrix Chambers.

Among Hermer's recent cases was representing Abu Zubaydah, a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay who was subjected to extreme mistreatment and torture at secret CIA "black sites" in six countries.

The former detainee filed a lawsuit against the UK government over alleged complicity in his ordeal. 

Interventions on Israeli actions

In recent months and years, Hermer has been vocal on issues relating to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. 

In October, he was among eight prominent Jewish lawyers who wrote a letter urging Israel to remember its “international obligations” during its military offensive in Gaza. 

The letter described Hamas’s attack on southern Israel on 7 October as a war crime but emphasised that Israel’s response must comply with international law. 

“To be clear, collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war,” the letter stated. “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.

Hermer told the LBC radio station at the time that Israel’s siege on electricity, water and food in Gaza was likely in breach of international law. 

“Sieges, per se, of military personnel might not be contrary to international law, but it is almost impossible to conceive of how a siege that deprives a civilian population of the basic necessities of life... is in compliance with international law,” he said.

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The new attorney general's interventions on Israel and Palestine pre-date the ongoing war. 

In May last year, he was among dozens of lawyers who co-signed a Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights letter, calling on the UK government to constructively participate in an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on the legal consequences of Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. 

“The Israeli government is led by a coalition of far-right parties whose common goal is the formal annexation of the West Bank and the extension of a one-state reality of unequal rights over more than five million Palestinians under occupation,” stated the letter, signed by Hermer.

The letter added: “It is perfectly possible that the court will consider aspects of that situation to amount to apartheid. An ICJ opinion on this point would also assist the UK, given that the current position of the UK government is that the question of apartheid is one to be decided by a court and not one that politicians can resolve without that.”

Critical of anti-BDS bill

Last year, as the former Conservative government introduced a bill cracking down on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Labour sought advice from Hermer on the matter. 

Hermer said the bill would have a “profoundly detrimental” impact on the UK’s ability to promote human rights abroad, would “stifle free speech at home” and was “in certain respects inconsistent with our obligations under international law”. 

He argued that the bill equated occupied Palestine with Israel, which conflicted with the long-standing British policy supporting a two-state solution along the 1967 borders.

While not stating an opinion on BDS itself, Hermer highlighted Britain's long history of “using our economic clout for the promotion of human rights”, citing the role of local British authorities in boycotting apartheid South Africa. 

“Had this bill been in force during the 1980s, this would have been very likely deemed unlawful and no exemption granted in light of the position of the then prime minister that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and the apartheid regime was an ally,” he said. 

More than a decade earlier, in 2011, Hermer co-wrote a chapter in a book titled Corporate Complicity in Israel's Occupation: Evidence from the London Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

The chapter explored the legal framework around the complicity of transnational companies in international humanitarian law violations. 

Hermer’s stances contrast with elements of Labour’s initial response to Israel’s war on Gaza.

In an interview with LBC in October, Starmer appeared to condone Israel’s blockade of water and electricity to Palestinians, a position the Labour leader later retracted. 

Emily Thornberry, who was shadow attorney general at the time, refused to answer whether Israel’s cutting of power and water aligned with international law.

Some British media have described Hermer’s appointment as a “snub” to Thornberry, who was widely expected to take up the attorney general role.

As anticipated, David Lammy, the veteran MP for Tottenham, has become the new foreign secretary. 

In May, Lammy called for a pause on arms and components sales to Israel if such weapons were to be used in a military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. 

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