Civil servants try to uphold international law by asking to stop work on arms sales to Israel

Civil servants working on arms exports to Israel have asked to “cease work immediately” because they fear they could be complicit in war crimes in Gaza.

They want to stop work on export licences to Israel and other work related to that country’s military operation in Gaza.

The request comes after it was revealed that aid workers including three Britons were murdered in an Israeli airstrike that used a drone manufactured in the UK.

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Officials in the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) have raised concerns with bosses that they may face criminal proceedings if it is deemed Israel has broken international law. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is already examining evidence to determine whether Israel is indeed guilty of war crimes.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents civil servants, has requested an urgent meeting with the DBT to discuss “the legal jeopardy faced by civil servants who are continuing to work on this policy”.

Its letter states that “we believe there are ample grounds to immediately suspend all such work”.

The union has been asking ministers for details of legal advice on arming Israel since January, when the (ICJ) made its preliminary ruling that Israel’s acts in Gaza could amount to genocide.

‘We were only following orders’ is not a defence against war crime charges

The DBT said in March that “the question of criminal liability for civil servants is very unlikely to arise”.

It said it could not discuss legal advice it had received because it was “confidential” – but a letter to the government from 600 lawyers including former Supreme Court judges, which amounts to a legal advice, has said that the evidence is enough to suggest that war crimes are being committed.

And the Rome Statute covering war crimes makes it abundantly clear that the so-called ‘Nuremberg Defence’ – commonly quoted as “we were only following orders” – is not acceptable against war crime charges.

The government has said Israel’s adherence to International Humanitarian Law is currently under constant review, with all export licence applications assessed on a case-by-case basis against Strategic Export Licensing Criteria.

Make a note of that. If it becomes clear that the government received contrary advice before today, it’s evidence.

Already we have heard the claims of Alicia Kearns that the government has indeed had contrary advice – but is ignoring it in order to keep Israel’s cash flowing into the UK.

Liberal Democrat Layla Moran has used this to report Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Foreign Secretary David Cameron to Parliament’s ethics advisor:

Will it do any good? Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis think it probably won’t because legal advice is only advice and government ministers may ignore it.

But that would potentially lay them – and their civil servants – open to war crimes charges from the ICJ, which is exactly what is troubling the DBT staff.

Tories dismiss ending Israel arms sales as ‘gesture politics’

The UK’s Conservative government has already doubled down on its position, saying that cutting its arms sales to Israel would be meaningless “gesture politics” as this country supplies only 0.02 per cent of Israel’s weapons and ammunition. Here’s Bob Seely, who sits on the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee:

His words were echoed this morning (April 5) by right-wing broadcaster Iain Dale:

None of that changes the evidence that the equipment Israel used to kill British citizens was manufactured in the UK. That alone should be enough reason for the government to withdraw all arms permits to Israel.

Also: according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the UK has licensed £487 million worth of weapons to Israel since 2015 – around £54 million every year. If that is 0.02 per cent of what Israel is buying from other countries, then its spend on arms from those countries alone is £270 billion, every year. That’s not counting arms that Israel manufactures itself.

That is a horrifying amount of ordnance for a country as small as Israel – almost six times the UK’s entire defence budget.

But the crucial argument that defeats the Seely/Dale line is simply this: continuing to supply arms to Israel in the hope that Benjamin Netanyahu will listen to concerns about war crimes is pointless because Netanyahu isn’t listening to anybody else’s advice about military operations in Gaza.

So what should the UK do?

The conclusion has to be this: if UK arms sales to Israel really are as low as Bob Seely says, then cutting them off will have little effect on its war effort. But it could have a huge symbolic effect as it would represent withdrawal of support from the country that was most instrumental in establishing Israel as a state after World War II.

Not only that, but it would validate the concerns of civil servants who do not want to work on arms sales to Israel – providing protection for them against future prosecution for complicity in war crimes.

Source: Civil servants request to stop work over arms sales to Israel

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