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The UK Government’s Contempt for International Law – and for Palestinians

Summary


David Mond, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics
The author, David Mond, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, University of Warwick

Since the start of the year, the UK Government has taken two decisions concerning Gaza which reveal a breathtaking one-sidedness and hypocrisy.


The first was to continue arming Israel after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that there is a plausible risk that Israel is committing genocide.


The second was to suspend funding to UNRWA, the principal distributor of food in Gaza, after Israel alleged, without providing any evidence, that twelve employees of UNRWA had taken part in the October 7th Hamas attack.


Here we consider legal opinions on the ICJ interim judgement and its implications for UK policy, discuss the consequences for the UK body politic of the government’s one-sidedness, and point out that this one-sidedness has been made possible in large part by the systematic media misrepresentation of the situation in Palestine, and in particular the misuse of allegations of anti-semitism against critics of Israeli policies.


The ICJ interim ruling


On January 26th, 2024, the fifteen judges of the International Court of Justice gave an interim ruling on the case brought by South Africa, accusing Israel of committing genocide in its conduct of the war in Gaza. The ruling states that “at least some of the acts and omissions alleged by South Africa to have been committed by Israel in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the (Genocide) Convention." In other words, it is plausible that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.


This is certainly the interpretation explicitly voiced in an open letter to the UK government, published on April 3rd and now signed by 1,101 present and retired judges, lawyers and legal academics, including Lady Hale, the former President of the Supreme Court.


The ICJ’s interim conclusions were supported by compelling testimony from the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (interim ruling, paragraph 47) the World Health Organisation (paragraph 48), and the head of UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (paragraph 49). They were strengthened by:

  • quotes (in paragraphs 50-52), of statements made by the President of Israel Isaac Herzog, who said that there were no uninvolved civilians, and the Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who said that the government had released all restraints on the armed forces because they were fighting human animals;

  • a press release (paragraph 53) from a group of thirty-seven experts attached to the UN Human Rights Council, who were already alarmed, in mid-November, by the discernibly genocidal and dehumanising rhetoric coming from senior Israeli government officials, and;

  • evidence provided by South Africa when it argued its case before the court.


As an occupying power, Israel is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population of Gaza. These responsibilities are quite different from those applying to two sovereign states which are at war.


Once a state is aware of the risk of genocide, it has a positive duty, under the UN Genocide Convention and surrounding jurisprudence, to do all within its power to prevent it. In the words of a group of UN legal experts:


All States must ‘ensure respect’ for international humanitarian law by parties to an armed

conflict, as required by 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. States must accordingly refrain from transferring any weapon or ammunition – or parts for them – if it is expected, given the facts or past patterns of behaviour, that they would be used to violate international law. Such transfers are prohibited even if the exporting State does not intend the arms to be used in violation of the law – or does not know with certainty that they would be used in such a way – as long as there is a clear risk [that they will be].


This obligation on all states is central to human rights and the integrity of international law, and applies under all circumstances.


The January 26th ruling makes clear that there is a risk of genocide, the most serious of all violations of international law.


Despite these very clear obligations, the US, the UK and Germany have continued to supply arms to Israel. By failing to take positive action to stop the genocide or the risk of genocide in Gaza, they (we) are now breaching their positive duty to prevent genocide. They are certainly in breach of the Genocide Convention by failing to act on the risk, and they are arguably now complicit in the genocide, and their leaders open to criminal liability. In the view of the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, should the ICJ find there to have been genocide, the states that have aided and abetted it would be considered a party to the commission of the crime under the Convention.


The Israeli allegations against UNRWA


Immediately after the ICJ issued its interim ruling, on the very same day, Israel issued an allegation that twelve employees of UNRWA (out of the 13,000 in Gaza) had participated in the Hamas atrocity of October 7th. It provided no evidence for this. UNRWA is the principal distributor of food aid in Gaza, and 2.3 million Gazans depend on this aid. The American, British, French, German, Canadian and other governments immediately announced that they would cease funding UNRWA. This was despite no evidence being provided by Israel.


A rigorous inquiry, ordered by the UN Secretary-General and led by the former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, supported by the Swedish-based Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, the Norwegian Chr. Michelsen Institute and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, released on April 22nd, has found there is still no evidence for the claim that significant numbers of UNRWA employees have Hamas or Islamic Jihad ties. Nevertheless, the UK government has ruled out resuming funding to UNRWA for the time being. Of course, in this it is outperformed by the US, where Congress has passed a law prohibiting the resumption of US funding until March 2025.


To conclude: the US, UK and Germany have chosen to ignore the well-supported conclusions of the International Court of Justice that there is a plausible risk of genocide by Israel in Gaza, and continued to supply arms to Israel so that its mass killing of Palestinians may continue. But they have chosen to believe the unsupported accusation of the possible perpetrator of the mass killing, and suspended funding of UNRWA, thereby denying food to the starving inhabitants of Gaza. They supply weapons, despite abundant evidence that they will be used to commit genocide, but deny food aid on the basis of the flimsiest of allegations.


How can his happen?


The extraordinary one-sidedness shown by these governments in their response to these two cases can of course be described as an example of realpolitik. But this is not an explanation. What are the factors behind their decisions, which appear to fly in the face of the morality to which they claim to adhere? At least in the UK, direct electoral calculations surely can play no part; the gulf between our leaders’ behaviour over the Gaza genocide, and both popular and informed opinion, is epochal. A survey by YouGov conducted between November and December last year showed 59% of UK citizens in favour of an immediate ceasefire, and only 19% against, and since December public opinion has swung further against Israel.


Nor can legal opinions on the right to self-defence justify the apparent disregard for international law: the open letter cited above calls on the UK government to suspend the provision of weapons and weapons systems to the Government of Israel, to resume UK funding of UNRWA, and to impose sanctions on individuals and entities who have made statements inciting genocide against Palestinians – in other words, to adhere to the international law described above. There are even credible reports that the government’s own legal advisers have told it that it is breaking international law by supplying arms to Israel. The government refuses to publish the advice it has received.


The UK government’s behaviour is causing serious damage to the UK body politic, to international relations, and, most likely, to the world order, and yet there is still no plausible explanation, beyond the words in the title of this piece. To what extent might the misrepresentation of criticism of Israel as antisemitism be a significant factor?


It is very hard to understand the Conservative Party’s endorsement of Israel’s war, and I make no attempt to do so here. Do conservatives really believe that criticism of Israel is essentially antisemitic? By extension, do they really believe Israel has the right to expel the inhabitants of Palestine, take their land, imprison them in a tiny enclave, periodically kill thousands by bombing them, and now launch a genocidal campaign of all-out destruction? The question is crucial, but I attempt no answers here. Instead, I turn to the Labour Party.


Labour's shameful silence


The Labour Party, with its tradition of internationalism and support for anti-colonial struggles, might have been expected to stand up for Palestinian rights and oppose the genocide. Instead, it has been largely silent. Since its reputation was methodically damaged by false allegations of of antisemitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, it has renounced all support for Palestine, and systematically expelled members, a disproportionate number of them Jewish, who have denounced Israeli ethnic cleansing.


Its response to the election of a Jewish critic of Israel, Naomi Wimbourne-Idrissi, to the party’s National Executive, with the second highest number of votes of all the candidates for election, was to expel her from the party. It has rigorously prohibited discussion of Palestine, and expelled, suspended, and barred from candidature, members who disobey the prohibition. This suppression of party democracy, and the renunciation of a call for justice which was dear to the hearts of many supporters, has demoralised activists, and led to an extraordinary level of anger and disappointment in the leadership, among the people who it expects to do the hard work for it at election time.


It is difficult to believe that Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer before he was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions, is not aware of the implications of the ICJ interim judgement, and as party leader he ought to be concerned by the danger of the mass desertion by party activists. Commentators have variously attributed his apparently unconditional support for Israel to his desire to weaken his predecessor’s standing in the party, to a sincere if misguided belief that the Labour Party was overrun with antisemites, and to the fact that he is beholden to a wealthy pro-Zionist donor, Trevor Chinn, who bankrolled his campaign for the leadership of the party. But on top of all those reasons is the likelihood that he is terrified at the possibility of a rerun of the campaign of smears directed at the Labour Party over its support for Palestine in the run-up to the 2019 election.


Labour’s silence, cowed by accusations of antisemitism – a very clear case of misrepresentation – has left the UK government free to break international law, provide arms to support Israeli genocide and ethnic cleansing, and starve the Palestinians by denying funding to UNRWA. It is hard to think of a more shameful episode in British foreign policy, or in the history of the Labour Party.

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Brief bio: David Mond is an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick. Before working at Warwick he taught at the National University of Colombia, in Bogotá. He is a secular Jew, and particularly indignant at the category of self-hating Jew invented by supporters of Israel to dismiss Jewish criticism.











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