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Labour votes to support right of return for Palestinians

Emily Thornberry condemns UK's continued support for Yemen war and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
UK's Labour party voted to support a boycott Israeli settlements and to recognise the right of return for Palestinian refugees (Reuters)
By in
Brighton, UK

Labour has voted by a huge majority to support the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland in Israel at the party’s annual conference on Monday.

The motion opposes any proposed solution for Palestinians not based on international law including their right “to return to their homes”.

Delegates also for the first time backed a boycott of Israeli settlement goods and opposed trade deals with Israel which “fail to recognize the rights of the Palestinians”.

Labour also reaffirmed that it will take immediate steps to halt the sale of UK arms used by Israeli forces against Gaza and in the Saudi campaign in Yemen, the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told delegates. 

She added that the party would “conduct a root and branch reform of our arms export regime to ensure that never again can ministers turn a blind eye when British made weapons are being used to kill innocent children.” 

Saudi Arabia, the biggest buyer of UK arms, has been waging a war in Yemen against Houthi rebels since March 2015.

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UK weapons sales to Israel have increased in spite of a crackdown on protests in the besieged Gaza Strip, with more than 250 people killed and thousands injured by Israeli forces since March 2018.

In her wide-ranging speech, Thornberry criticised US Donald Trump’s support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank and moves "to turn Israel into an apartheid state". 

She said of Trump: “How can you lead the free world when you are actively supporting the suppression and annexation of Palestine?”

The UK arms control regime has come under increased criticism over weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where a devastating war has killed tens of thousands of civilians, mostly as a result of Saudi-led air strikes.

Thornberry blasted UK government support for the Saudi government and its failure to assign blame to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate last October.

She said: “Next week as [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson makes his conference speech it will be exactly one year since Jamal Khashoggi was butchered inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Twelve [months] on and still they [the UK government] will not say who they think is responsible."

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Britain's opposition Labour Party Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry delivers a speech during the Labour party conference in Brighton (AFP)

She added: “No one has taken more inspiration from him than the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman.

“I asked the question last year why on earth are they [the UK government] rolling out the red carpet for bin Salman. Well, now we know why. It was the only way to cover up the blood that is dripping from his hands from the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in Yemen.”

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Both the CIA and a UN investigation found that the crown prince almost certainly gave the order for a Saudi death squad to kill Khashoggi.

Thornberry also said if elected, the party was committed to establishing “a judge-led inquiry into our country’s alleged past complicity into rendition and alleged torture and the current operation of our secret courts”.

The government faced a Court of Appeal judgement in June that ruled against new UK weapons licenses for use in the war in Yemen.  

In its judgment, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government had made an error by failing to make an assessment of whether there was a risk that equipment sold to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. 

The case was brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) whose lawyers argued that the sales were in breach of international humanitarian law because of the disproportionate harm the weapons cause to civilians.

However, the judgement has not halted the vast majority of ongoing arms sales contracts to Saudi Arabia.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, who sits on the House of Commons committees on arms export controls, said he was told by a representative of UK arms giant BAE – the main UK military contractor in Saudi Arabia - that arms sales were continuing and the ruling had had no impact on its operations.

Sales unaffected by ruling

Professor Anna Stavrianakis, an expert on UK arms exports from the University of Sussex, speaking at a Labour fringe event, said that 59 out of 60 so-called open licence arms contracts with the Gulf kingdom had continued unaffected by the Court of Appeal ruling.

Last week the UK government "unreservedly" apologised for authorising arms deals to Saudi Arabia in breach of the court ruling against the sale of weapons that could be used in the war in Yemen.

International trade secretary Liz Truss wrote to MP Graham Jones, chair of the committees on arms export controls, saying she informed the Court of Appeal of two "inadvertent breaches" to the 20 June ruling. 

The sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners include radio parts worth £435,450, according to the letter. 

The Labour conference comes as the country is expected to go to the polls in coming weeks to break the deadlock in Parliament over Brexit and the government’s loss of its majority in Westminster.