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UK civil servants overseeing arms sales to Israel demand to 'cease work immediately'

Union says there are 'ample grounds' to suspend work following ICJ ruling that there's plausible risk Israel is committing genocide in Gaza
Aftermath of a two-week Israeli attack on Al-Shifa Hospital and the area around it, in Gaza City, 1 April 2024 (REUTERS)

The UK civil servants union has said that it is "seriously considering" taking legal action to prevent its members who oversee arms exports to Israel "from being forced to carry out unlawful acts". 

According to the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents civil servants, their members have requested that they "cease work immediately" on tasks related to export licences to Israel over fears that they may be liable if Israel is deemed to have broken international law.

In a letter to the Department of Business and Trade on Wednesday, PCS said: "Given the implications for our members we believe there are ample grounds to immediately suspend all such work."

The union requested an urgent meeting with the department to discuss "the legal jeopardy faced by civil servants who are continuing to work on this policy".

According to the letter, PCS has been asking the government for its legal advice since January, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ)'s ruling in the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel found that there is a plausible risk that genocide is being committed in Gaza.

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In a response to the union on 13 March, the department advised that "the question of criminal liability for civil servants is very unlikely to arise", but said it could not share its legal advice as it is "confidential".

This comes less than a week after a leaked recording obtained by the Observer showed the UK government had received advice from its own lawyers stating that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza but has failed to make it public.

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In a statement, Paul O' Connor, head of bargaining at PCS, said that the union agrees with ICJ ruling and believes that the UK 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.

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

Labour MP John McDonnell, a founding member of PCS, said that "civil servants should not be put at risk", as "following a superior's instructions is not a defence when it comes to charges of war crimes".

This comes amid growing pressure on the UK government to stop arming Israel, after seven international aid workers were killed by an Israeli air strike.

On Thursday, over 600 prominent lawyers, academics and former judges signed a letter warning the UK government that it is breaching international law by continuing to arm Israel.

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