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A Legal Duty and a Moral Imperative: the UK Must Halt its Arms Transfers to Israel

On 23 February 2024, a large group of UN human rights experts issued a resounding warning: “All States must not be complicit in international crimes through arms transfers. They must do their part to urgently end the unrelenting humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.” This warning adds to the mounting demands from human rights and humanitarian organisations, activists and many others calling for an immediate halt to the transfer of weapons, parts, and ammunition to Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

Image credit: WILPF
WILPF International Secretariat
11 March 2024

The United Kingdom (UK) is one of the governments that, in spite of the ample evidence of Israel’s violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including war crimes, has continued to authorise arms transfers to Israel. The UK is in blatant violation of its obligations under international law, including but not limited to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Not to mention that its actions are morally unconscionable. Furthermore, following the 26 January 2024 International Court of Justice’s finding of a plausible risk of genocide, all states have been put on notice of their treaty obligations to prevent and punish genocide and the customary international law obligation not to aid and assist the commission of an internationally wrongful act. Yet, the UK has not suspended arms transfers to Israel.

On 29 February 2024, the UK told the UN Human Rights Council that “in Gaza, Palestinian civilians are facing a devastating and growing humanitarian catastrophe. We need to avert this, and that is why we want the fighting to stop now.” The UK added that the impact of the Israeli army’s “operations on the civilian population is deeply concerning. Already, too many civilians have been killed.” Yet at the same time, the UK government continues to deliver weapons that help to violate international law. This is cynical and hypocritical.

It is not possible for the UK government or any other government for that matter to deny that weapons being sent to Israel are not “at risk” of being used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. This includes serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children. These are violations that ATT States parties are expressly required to take into account when authorising arms transfers, and are violations that Israel is clearly committing. It is imperative that we continue to call for an immediate end to arms transfers to Israel. It is also imperative to remind the UK and other arms exporting states of their international law obligations in this regard. A joint submission by WILPF, Al Haq and International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), with the contribution of Saferworld to the analysis on ATT obligations and arms export controls under UK domestic law, sent to the UN Human Rights Committee does exactly that.

The joint submission highlights profound concerns regarding the UK’s violations of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is the treaty whose compliance the UN Human Rights Committee is mandated to monitor. The submission underscores the UK’s role in arms transfers and their extraterritorial human rights impacts, specifically relating to Israel and the ongoing situation in Gaza. It recalls the UK’s obligations under ICCPR, the ATT, and domestic law to regulate arms exports strictly. It discusses the exploitation of loopholes in the UK’s domestic laws on arms export controls to supply components for US-made F16 and F-35 fighter aircrafts used in Gaza. The submission follows on the urgent call issued in November 2023 by Al Haq, WILPF and ISHR, and endorsed by over 170 organisations, for a two-way arms embargo on Israel.

A week before informing the UN Human Rights Council about its concerns “about the devastating and growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza,” the UK stated at an ATT meeting that its arms exports to Israel are a small proportion of its total arms exports. This argument is spurious. The UK cannot argue that the test for compliance with the ATT is the proportion of its own total export of weapons. The ATT applies regardless of the scale of the military support.  The UK’s continued military aid to Israel, including supplying components for US-made fighter aircraft used in Gaza, clearly enables the violation of international human rights and laws, for which the UK should be held accountable. In addition, it signals to other governments that the situation in Gaza doesn’t require stopping military support to Israel, in circumstances where the International Court of Justice has already found that there is a plausible risk of genocide.

At the ATT meeting, the UK also affirmed that it “can and do respond quickly and flexibly to changing or fluid international situations and are able to review licences and suspend, amend or revoke as necessary when circumstances require.” Such circumstances are evident. 

We remind the UK of its obligations under international human rights law, including the ICCPR, International Humanitarian Law (IHL), international criminal law, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the ATT, and other relevant international law and we call on the UK to immediately stop arms transfers and other forms of military assistance to Israel, and demand that it revoke all licences for arms destined to Israel from its jurisdiction.

If the UK government does believe that the situation in Gaza is “devastating” and must come to an end – then its hypocrisy in continuing to allow supply of arms and parts that are killing Palestinians and turning Gaza inhabitable must stop. Halting arms transfers to Israel is not merely a legal compliance issue but a moral imperative.

Background

The Human Rights Committee is the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the “ICCPR”, which is an international human rights treaty) by its States parties. On 12 March and 13 March 2024, at its 140th session, the Committee will consider the eighth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Civil society organisations play a key role in helping the Committee to fulfil its mandate effectively. They can contribute to the work of the Committee in different ways, including by submitting written information for its reviews of States parties’ periodic reports.

Many UN human rights mechanisms have recognised the strong link between the impact of the international arms trade and the availability of weapons on human rights. These include, in addition to the Human Rights Committee, UN the Human Rights Council (HRC), fact-finding missions and other investigative mechanisms created by the HRC, as well as treaty bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

In relation to the right to life, the Human Rights Committee has stated that State parties must take appropriate measures to protect individuals against deprivation of life by other States and foreign corporations operating within their territory or subject to their jurisdiction.

Human rights concerns regarding the UK’s arms transfers are not new. For example, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen expressed repeated concerns about arms transfers from the UK to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Over the years, the UK has also received recommendations regarding its arms transfers from the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and in the context of the Universal Periodic Review, which are other UN human rights mechanisms.

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Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

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Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

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In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

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Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

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In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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