Why Oxfam is involved in a court case on UK arms sales to Israel

July 4, 2024

     By Richard Stanforth     

Oxfam has applied to formally intervene in a court case brought against the UK government over arms sales to Israel. Richard Stanforth explains why…

Who is taking the UK government to court over arms sales to Israel?

The case is being brought by Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian human rights organisation, and UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN). The case is supported by the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians.

The case challenges the UK government’s decision to continue arms exports to Israel amid the current escalation in the decades long conflict. UK law states that if there’s a clear risk UK weapons might be used for serious violations of international humanitarian law, export licences shouldn’t be granted.

As a humanitarian organisation operating in Gaza, Oxfam has sought to intervene and provide evidence in this case.

Al-Haq and GLAN are also taking similar action in other countries.

Why is Oxfam involved?

Oxfam has applied to submit a witness statement and legal submissions to ensure national and international laws are upheld.

Oxfam has submitted detailed information on the widespread destruction of water, sanitation and health infrastructure, in breach of International Humanitarian Law to the court. Oxfam has also provided other evidence including on attacks on humanitarian aid workers and restrictions on vital humanitarian aid delivery.

Oxfam has a long history of speaking out against the sale of weapons that might be used to target civilians and destroy vital infrastructure in conflicts. Most recently, we’ve campaigned against the UK’s export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen conflict, including by intervening in legal action against the government by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Oxfam is also involved in cases challenging arms sales to Israel in the NetherlandsDenmark and Belgium.

Does the UK sell arms to Israel?

Since 2015, the UK has licensed at least £489 million worth of military exports to Israel. This includes parts for combat aircrafts, missiles, tanks, technology, small arms, and ammunition.

The F-35 stealth bomber aircraft contains many parts that have been made in the UK. These same fighter jets are being used to reduce parts of Gaza to rubble, striking fear into the hearts of people on the ground and destroying countless lives.

There’s a clear risk that UK-made weapons are being used for serious violations of international law. And that the government has knowledge its supplies might be used in attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, making the transfers illegal. Yet, the UK government is refusing to halt arms licenses and exports to the Government of Israel.

See Oxfam’s parliamentary brief on UK arms sales.

In March, Oxfam launched a public letter urging the Trade Secretary and Foreign Secretary to immediately suspend arms licenses to Israel. Yet even amid rising public concern and pressure, the UK continues to sell arms.

So, campaigning organisations are using various methods to keep pressure on the UK government to stop the sale of arms to Israel. This includes taking legal action.

Earlier this year, Oxfam and others launched a petition in the Netherlands, that led to a court ordering the Dutch state to stop exporting F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel. Oxfam’s evidence was a key factor in these cases.

What are the relevant UK arms laws?

Oxfam campaigned for nearly twenty years to bring the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) into being in 2014, with the aim of preventing human suffering and putting people’s lives and safety before the profits of arms companies. We work hard to push governments to implement the Treaty robustly, and challenge governments in the annual ATT conference to live up to their obligations.

The UK has criteria in place to assess the risk of any arms export against the terms and principles of the ATT and other international law requirements.

In this case, arms campaigning organisations will highlight the Strategic Export Licensing Criteria, which brings together all the obligations the UK must meet under UK, EU, and international law.

How does UK parliament oversee decisions on arms sales?

Previously, the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) reviewed the UK’s arms export policy. This was made up of four committee chairs; Business, Defence, International Development, and Foreign Affairs. However, this has now been disbanded.

Scrutiny of arms exports now sits with the Select Committee on Business and Trade. This excludes inputs from MPs specialising in foreign affairs and development, and the Ministry of Defence. It is not a long-term solution.

It’s important Parliament has a dedicated Select Committee with the expertise and necessary powers to oversee and check the UK’s arms export policy and practice, especially with the current situation in Gaza.

What power does the UK High Court have?

The High Court in the UK is where this case will be heard. It has the power to conduct judicial reviews, which means the Court would review the decision-making process of the UK Government, and rule whether ministers have acted unlawfully by continuing to export arms.

It could lead the UK to suspend arms sales either because of a political decision by the Government  or a legal ruling from the Court.

Our work on UK arms sales to Yemen showed that these legal actions can save lives by making the Foreign Office more accountable than ever before. In that case, the Court forced the Government to stop issuing licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia for one year, whilst it reviewed its risk assessment process. In the current case, proper enforcement of UK law is sought.

This case will be heard in October, with a decision likely coming some months after that.

What needs to happen next?

  • The UK Government needs to stop all current and new military equipment licenses while Israel keeps committing serious violations of international law.
  • Parliament must urgently hold the Government to account for the use of UK-licenced military items in Gaza.

In every previous escalation of violence in Gaza and against Palestinians in the region, the UK has at least revoked some licenses or otherwise suspended arms transfers to Israel.

To not do so in this instance is not only inconsistent, but it could also leave the Government open to complicity in war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Richard Stanforth is a senior policy adviser at Oxfam GB.

Sign Oxfam’s open letter urging the UK government to stop selling arms to Israel

This blog is republished from the main Oxfam website.


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