UK: Labour expected to drop challenge to ICC over Netanyahu arrest warrant

Patrick Wintour

The Guardian  /  July 8, 2024

UK government appears unlikely to go ahead with legal bid, while Keir Starmer has spoken with Israeli PM over Gaza ceasefire.

The new Labour government is expected to drop a bid to delay the international criminal court (ICC) reaching a decision on whether to issue an arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu over alleged war crimes in Gaza.

The development came as Keir Starmer, the new UK prime minister, told the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, that he believed the Palestinians had an undeniable right to a Palestinian state. Starmer spoke to Abbas on Sunday about the “ongoing suffering and devastating loss of life” in Gaza.

He also spoke to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, setting out the “clear and urgent” need for a ceasefire in Gaza. “He added that it was also important to ensure the long-term conditions for a two-state solution were in place, including ensuring the Palestinian Authority had the financial means to operate effectively,” a readout of the call said.

Starmer said the situation on the northern border of Israel, where exchanges of fire with Lebanon-based Hezbollah have been taking place, was “very concerning” and it was “crucial all parties acted with caution”.

Labour officials briefed that the party continued to believe that the ICC, based in The Hague, had jurisdiction over Gaza. In a submission to the ICC, made by the previous government, the UK had claimed the court did not have jurisdiction over Israeli nationals. Britain’s request to lodge the challenge was made on 10 June in secret but was revealed a fortnight ago by the ICC.

The court’s pre-trial chamber had given the UK until 12 July to submit its full claim, but it now appears highly unlikely that the new government will go ahead with it, lifting the potential delay on the ICC pre-trial chamber ruling on the request for arrest warrants.

In its legal challenge, the UK had questioned whether the ICC could order the arrest of Israeli citizens. The Foreign Office said the Palestinian authorities had no jurisdiction over Israeli nationals under the Oslo accords, and as a result they could not transfer jurisdiction to the ICC.

In 2021 the ICC ruled that, despite the state of Palestine not being a sovereign state, the ICC did have jurisdiction over any alleged violations of the Rome statute, the ICC’s foundational charter, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

The foreign secretary, David Lammy, said he would this week start reviewing issues such as the future funding of the Palestinian relief works agency UNRWA, and the legal advice given to the previous government which said there was no risk that UK arms sales were being used by Israel in breach of international humanitarian law.

The UK is now one of the few countries that has refused to restore funding to UNRWA after it was claimed that up to a dozen of its staff might have taken part in the attack on Israel on 7 October. UK funding of UNRWA should have restarted in May, but the Conservative government said it would wait until the outcome of a UN investigation.

Insisting on his right to consider the issue carefully, Lammy added: “We did raise issues about the funding of the dispatch box, and real concerns that did not want the situation where the UK was contributing to tremendous hardship already in Gaza.”

On the publication of official advice about the legality of arms sales, Lammy said: “I made the solemn undertaking in parliament that I would look at the legal assessments, and I will begin that process, of course, as soon as I’m able to. I expect that to begin next week as I sit down with officials.”

Defending the Labour position in the wake of a loss of support among many Muslim voters at the general election, he added: “I have been crystal clear on the international humanitarian law. There will be no resiling from that, because it’s important that we are all seen to uphold the rules-based order at a time particularly when authoritarian states are discarding it. It’s on that basis that I enter into this role and I take that very, very seriously.”

Lammy also said he was deeply worried about the so-called “day after”, including the planning for some kind of revamped Palestinian Authority in Gaza. He rejected Hamas being given a role in the future governance of Gaza, saying: “It’s hard to see how an organization that’s not committed to a two-state solution, and is committed to terrorism, can be part of that solution. But I also recognize that there are real problems at the moment with the Palestinian Authority, which is why this is going to take a lot of work with our partners.”

Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor for The Guardian