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International law experts tell Starmer: you don’t know what you’re doing re Israel’s Gaza war crimes

Starmeroids’ responses are of ‘profound concern’ and show Labour’s cavalier attitude to international law, says array of legal experts – who also tell Starmer to start opposing instead of enabling

The beginning of the law experts’ letter to Keir Starmer

A long list of experts in international law has written a damning letter to ‘Labour’ ‘leader’ Keir Starmer – who frequently boasts of being a human rights lawyer – expressing their ‘profound’ concern at his disingenuous position on Israel’s genocide in Gaza and his insistence on supporting the occupation regime in its war crimes against Palestinian civilians. The letter also warns Starmer that every country has an absolute obligation to prevent war crimes wherever they occur and that he is patently not doing this – an issue that should worry him, when he is under notice of prosecution if he colludes in Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The full text of the letter reads:

Sir Keir Starmer
Leader of the Labour Party
Cc: Emily Thornberry,
Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales
14 November 2023

Dear Sir Keir Starmer,

We, the undersigned, wrote to you on 17 and 25 October, calling on you to clarify Labour’s position on collective punishment and forcible transfer and to oppose and condemn the commission of war crimes. Our letter was prompted by numerous statements from you and senior members of your shadow cabinet, which appeared to suggest that Labour either did not understand the international law governing Israel’s conduct or was unwilling, for political reasons, to publicly support fundamental principles of international law.

On 10 November, we received a response from the Labour Party. Various aspects of the response are of profound concern.

Legal inaccuracy

Most worrying in Labour’s response to our letters was the lack of understanding of international law. The response states that “collective punishment under international law is considered a war crime as per Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions (1949), to which Britain is a signatory”. This is inaccurate. The collective punishment of civilians is prohibited under article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (and under Article 75(2)d Additional Protocol I). States are unequivocally bound by the prohibition of collective punishment – any form of collective punishment amounts to an ‘internationally wrongful act’. And, as we pointed out in both letters, the imposition of collective punishment is likely to be considered a war crime under customary international law. Also, as it stands, it is the United Kingdom and not Britain that approves international treaties.

This may seem like a technicality but in the midst of an international crisis of this scale and given Israel’s statements, it is imperative that the Labour Party understands international law and understands the gravity of its position on collective punishment and on forcible transfer. As regards collective punishment, Israeli officials made their intentions clear. The Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, announcing the complete siege of Gaza, said “[t]here will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly“. A spokesperson for the Israeli military said that the emphasis was “on damage and not accuracy” and another official stated that “[c]reating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieve the goal“. The Minister for Energy stated that there would be no electricity, water or fuel “until the Israeli abductees are returned home“. You are, we are sure, well aware of the humanitarian crisis that Israel has since imposed through the siege of Gaza. The International Committee of the Red Cross, amongst others, have described both the complete siege of Gaza and the evacuation order as incompatible with international law.

It is worth noting that two joint letters from over 40 UK academics, with expertise in international law, merits a formal response from the Labour Party. Why then was the response not checked for legal accuracy and why were such fundamental legal issue given such cursory treatment?

The Role of the Opposition

The response to our letters also states that Labour’s position must be “in line with Britain’s global allies, namely the United States of America and the European Union”. In this regard, it behooves us to remind you that it is the job of His Majesty’s Opposition to hold the government of the United Kingdom to account, not to follow policy lines of foreign governments.

The legal obligations of the UK government should not be in doubt. Common articIe 1 of the four Geneva Conventions requires states parties “to respect and to ensure respect” for the conventions. We would also like to remind you that the United Kingdom has ratified the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As confirmed by the International Council of Justice in 2020, all states have an obligation to prevent acts of genocide, irrespective of where they occur. In light of the mounting and compelling evidence of genocide, as affirmed by UN experts and scholars of genocide, the United Kingdom can adhere to its obligations under the Genocide Convention by calling for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the siege and an end to the forced displacement of Palestinians.

Labour’s commitment to international law

In the closing paragraph, your colleague thanks us for the “chance for the labour party to reiterate” its commitment to international law. However, this meagre and inaccurate response to our specific questions seems to reflect Labour’s lack of commitment to international law. The authority of international law, and international humanitarian law, in particular, is fundamentally undermined when its invocation amounts to no more than a political soundbite. If the labour party is serious about the potential of international law to settle international disputes and to reduce suffering in armed conflict, it must aspire to invoke its terms accurately and responsibly in order to encourage compliance.

We, therefore, ask what legal advice the Labour Party has sought on the international legal framework governing Israel’s conduct in the aftermath of the Hamas atrocities of 7 October which, in addition to prima facie violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza, including war crimes, has included apparent war crimes in the West Bank, where Hamas does not exercise any control.

We also write to urge you to ensure that all labour MPs are fully informed of the UK government’s legal obligation to call for a ceasefire in advance of any Parliamentary vote.

We look forward to your response to this letter,

Professor Michelle Farrell, Professor of lnternational Law, University of Liverpool

Professor Donatella Alessandrini, Kent Law School, University of Kent

Professor Yutaka Arai-Takahashi, Brussels School of lnt’I Studies (BSIS), University of Kent, Brussels

Dr. Michelle Burgis-Kasthala, Senior Lecturer in Public lntemational Law. University of Edinburgh

Dr. Luigi Daniele. Senior Lecturer in Law. Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University

Dr. Alice Donald, Associate Professor, School of Law and Social Sciences, Middlesex University

Professor Mairead Enright, Professor of Feminist Legal Studies, Birmingham Law School

Professor Neve Gordon, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Alan Greene, Reader in Constitutional law and Human Rights, Birmingham Law School

Professor Penny Green, Professor of Law and Globalisation, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Kevin Hearty – Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Sciences Education and Social Work, Queens University Belfast

Professor Christian Henderson, Professor of lnternational Law, University of Sussex

Dr. Erika Jimenez. School of Law, Queens University Belfast

Dr. Emily Jones, Newcastle Law School

Dr. Sara Kendall, Reader in International Law, Kent Law School

Dr. Tor Krever, Assistant Professor in International Law, University of Cambridge

Dr. Daniella Lock, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford.

Professor Louise Mallinder, Professor of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Professor Triestino Marinello, School of Law, Liverpool John Moores University

Professor Alison MacKenzie, School of Social Sciences Education and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Professor Natasa Mavronicola, Professor of Human Rights Law, Birmingham Law School

Dr. Lydia Morgan, Associate Professor, Birmingham Law School

Dr. Julie McCandless, Senior Lecturer, Kent Law School

The letter was also copied to Starmer’s Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry, another lawyer who should know better.

Is Keir Starmer just an appalling lawyer, or is he wilfully ignoring and flouting international law – and basic human decency – to support war crimes in the pursuit of his and his donors’ agenda?

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