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War on Gaza: History tells Sunak and Cameron they can safely ignore the ICJ

Will Britain heed the warning it could be found complicit in the Gaza genocide and take action? Its record in Rwanda, Bosnia and Myanmar suggests the answer will be no
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron hold a joint press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on 9 April 2024 (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron hold a joint press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on 9 April 2024 (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

In a devastating letter late last week, hundreds of senior lawyers warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the urgent action Britain must take to avoid serious breaches of international humanitarian law and the Genocide Convention.

They spelled out the need to fall in line with the International Court of Justice and sanction “individuals and entities” who have made “statements inciting genocide against Palestinians”.

This list included Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant as well as President Isaac Herzog.

Even more urgent, the lawyers demanded that Britain should “suspend the provision of weapons and weapons systems to the government of Israel”.

This week in Washington, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron left no doubt that he would ignore this advice.

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Standing shoulder to shoulder with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Cameron made it clear that Britain would resist pressure to suspend the sale of arms.

“Our position is in line with our international partners,” said Cameron. “So far, no like-minded countries have taken the decision to suspend existing arms export licences to Israel. And I’d add that Israel remains a vital defence and security partner to the UK.”

For good measure, he added: “We don’t comment on legal advice, but we act in a way that is consistent with it. We’re a government under the law, and that’s as it should be.”

Complicit in war crimes

Britain has now embarked on a course of action which leaves it complicit in war crimes and in breach of the Genocide Convention. 

There are many reasons why it has taken this decision. One is slavish support not so much for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel as for the United States

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It is a central doctrine of British foreign policy that when the US says jump, Britain asks: how high? 

Another is impunity. For years, Britain has felt able to act regardless of consequences when it comes to breaches of international law, up to and including complicity in genocide. 

Britain is a signatory to the Genocide Convention, which came into effect after World War Two and the Holocaust. Article 1 of the convention obligates signatories to undertake to prevent and punish genocide.

The convention requires that the British government take "all measures to prevent genocide which were within its power". 

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There are numerous cases when Britain has ignored the Genocide Convention and got away with it. 

Some are disturbingly recent. Seven years ago the Myanmar army, in league with armed militias, went through Rakhine Province, murdering and raping members of the Rohingya minority. 

Last November, Britain finally supported the case originally taken by Gambia to the ICJ that the Myanmar military campaign was a genocide. 

At the time, it was a different story. Myanmar is an ugly case study in British complicity. In 2016, the British government had sold weapons worth around £500,000 to Myanmar, while £250,000 of the UK’s aid budget for Myanmar was used to train its military - even as the risk of mass violence escalated.

And when the massacres were taking place, Britain stood by and watched - despite being a "penholder" for Myanmar at the UN, which meant it could have referred Myanmar’s military leaders to the ICJ.

Boris Johnson, who last weekend said it would have been "shameful" to end arms sales to Israel, was foreign secretary at the time.

As the killing escalated, Johnson’s Foreign Office accused the Rohingya of provoking the violence against them, additionally insisting that Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi should not be “thwarted in her attempts to stabilise the situation”.

At that point, Aung San Suu Kyi was being widely accused of complicity in the violence. She had attempted multiple times to deny the atrocities that were taking place and had a documented record of viciously anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya views. 

It was only after the coup in Myanmar in February 2021 that Britain took a firmer stance - and ultimately introduced sanctions targeting the country's military.

Political and moral misjudgments

Or take the Rwanda genocide of 1994, which saw some 800,000 people - mainly Tutsis - killed in just three months. 

The US, Britain and the UN were explicitly warned that a “bloodbath” was imminent before the genocide began. On 25 February 1994, the Belgian government expressed “alarm” at Rwanda’s “significant deterioration”. But the US and Britain opposed UN intervention.

In an eerie reminder of British attacks on the ICJ over its provisional ruling against Israel, during the Rwandan genocide Britain persistently ignored the UN declaration that a genocide was under way.

A Ghanaian UN soldier with Tutsi people fleeing the ethnic violence on 13 June 1994 as they are evacuated from Kigali (Abdelhak Senna/AFP)
A Ghanaian UN soldier with Tutsis fleeing the ethnic violence in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on 13 June 1994 (Abdelhak Senna/AFP)

A UN inquiry later found that Britain actually led the opposition to intervention. The British government refused to acknowledge that what was happening in Rwanda was genocide - and even rejected a US proposal to send a fact-finding mission to Rwanda after over 100,000 people had died.

The Bosnian genocide in 1995, in which over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica, is another case in point.

Robert Hunter, at that time US ambassador to Nato, later said that Britain 'has a huge burden of responsibility for what happened at Srebrenica'

Serb forces had significant weaponry from the army of the former Yugoslavia. The Bosniaks they were fighting, by contrast, were massively under-armed and constrained by a brutal UN arms embargo that left them practically unable to defend themselves. 

At one point the Americans wanted to lift the embargo, but Britain disagreed.

After the slaughter at Srebrenica, both France and the US pressured Britain to back deeper involvement in the Bosnian war - but London resisted.

British officials cited not just military challenges and a potential hit to trade, but even the prime minister’s holiday as reasons not to intervene further.

Robert Hunter, at that time US ambassador to Nato, later said that Britain “has a huge burden of responsibility for what happened at Srebrenica”, asserting that responsibility for “Nato’s failure to act lay in London”.

But Britain has never come to terms with, let alone atoned for, a series of political and moral misjudgments which played a role in exacerbating Europe’s only genocide since the Holocaust.

Indonesian genocide

Britain was also extensively and horrifyingly complicit in the genocidal killings in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966.

The genocidal campaign by the Indonesian military, as well as militias and vigilantes, against people linked to Indonesia’s communist party killed 600,000 people - one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.

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The British government wanted the Indonesian military to overthrow the democratically elected government, which it saw as too close to China. After a failed leftist coup on 30 September 1965, Britain’s foreign office circulated hundreds of propaganda pamphlets to leading anti-communists and produced radio broadcasts inciting violence against communists.

As mass killings began in October 1965, British pamphlets called for communist organisations to “be eliminated” and advocated the killing of ethnic Chinese Indonesians, saying they were loyal to “Red China”.

The genocidal campaign also led to the US-backed General Suharto seizing power and establishing a 32-year dictatorship.

The British government categorically and consistently denied any wrongdoing. In 2015, a panel of seven international judges in the Hague, at an “International People’s Tribunal” set up by activists (with no legal weight), judged that Britain, America and Australia were complicit.

Not one British politician has ever paid any price for national complicity in the Indonesia, Rwanda, Bosnia or Myanmar atrocities.

This will have played a part in Cameron and Sunak’s calculation that they can simply ignore the ICJ.

History shows that they can get away with it. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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