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The ethics of arms exports: the UK’s role in the Gaza conflict

The debate surrounding arms exports and their ethical implications rightly occupies the news. Scotland’s International Development Alliance and SCIAF facilitated a briefing session for Scottish MPs and MSPs to help them understand more about the facts behind arms exports. We outline below some of the key points made by human rights and arms export experts in considering the complexities of the legal framework governing arms exports, the UK’s involvement, and the ethical considerations at play.

The legal framework

The licensing of arms exports is governed both by UK domestic law and international law. According to these laws, the UK Government has a clear obligation to suspend arms exports if there’s a risk that they might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law or international law more generally.

Human rights concerns

The United Nations, and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, have documented numerous violations in Gaza, including war crimes such as attacks on civilian infrastructure and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. These violations have raised concerns about the UK’s role in supplying arms components to Israel.

UK’s complicity

Despite evidence of serious violations, the UK Government has failed to act. Legal challenges have revealed that UK-manufactured components, licensed by the government, have ended up in fighter jets used in attacks in Gaza. The UK Government has acknowledged that there are 28 extant (current and open) arms export licenses, as well as 28 pending licenses as of December last year, which they classify as most likely to go to Israel to be used by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in Gaza. They include components for aircraft, small munitions, and targeting equipment. The UK’s reliance on Israel’s commitment to comply with international law has been criticised, especially given Israel’s track record of inconsistent adherence to humanitarian standards.

Questioning the justification

The UK government’s justification for its stance raises further concerns. It is conducting retrospective evaluations of IDF actions but relies heavily on Israel’s own assessments of its compliance with international law. At the time of writing, this means evaluations are running at least 6 weeks behind activity on the ground.

The UK’s approach overlooks Israel’s history of actions inconsistent with humanitarian standards, raising questions about Israel’s commitment and capability to comply with international humanitarian law. For example, IDF had confirmed that that the locations in the attack on 18 January (Medical Aid for Palestine and the International Rescue Committee compound) were ‘deconflicted’. This means they had confirmed that the sites were humanitarian provision and would not be attacked. Despite this confirmation, these sites were apparently deliberately targeted.

When challenged on levels of arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen the UK Government sought to argue that the level of arms trade to Saudi Arabia was so large stopping them would affect jobs. However, with Israel the government is trying to argue that the level of exports is too small to be relevant. Domestic and international law should be applied whatever the scale of exports.

Oversight gap

The UK’s approach to arms exports highlights ethical dilemmas inherent in the trade. Despite claims of a robust evaluation process, there are instances where the UK has turned a blind eye to potential violations. The use of artificial intelligence-based targeting systems by Israel, with implications for civilian casualties, underscores the need for greater scrutiny and accountability in arms exports. Artificial intelligence targeting systems have allowed many more targets to be identified than would be the case with human input. There are serious concerns about the process of oversight and the tendency to trust the technology.

History of oversight failures

Past instances reveal a troubling pattern of oversight failures. In 2002-2003, the UK sought assurances from Israel regarding the use of UK equipment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel initially provided assurances but later admitted to using UK equipment. Rather than ceasing further exports, the UK ceased seeking such assurances altogether. This history should provoke greater scepticism regarding Israel’s commitments.

What next?

While legal frameworks exist to regulate the arms trade, their effectiveness hinges on robust enforcement and accountability measures. The UK’s role in supplying arms components to conflict zones like Gaza underscores the need for a more rigorous evaluation process that prioritises human rights and international law.

SIDA member, Oxfam, are calling for Scottish MSPs to raise their collective voice on the issue of suspending arms sales to Israel. They call for the UK Government to:

  • Immediately suspend both extant licences for military equipment and technology and the issuing of new licences while the Israel continues to carry out widespread serious violations with impunity.
  • Adhere to its obligations under international law, respect the International Court of Justice ruling, and advocate for adherence to international law and accountability for all parties.
  • Use every diplomatic and economic lever at its disposal to help secure an immediate and permanent ceasefire, to stop the death and destruction, allow enough aid in, and to ensure the safe release of hostages.

For more info read Oxfam’s briefing on this issue

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