Drone strike that killed three British aid workers may have used UK-made components, “No possible excuses”: arms exports must cease immediately

Drone strike that killed three British aid workers may have used UK-made components, “No possible excuses”: arms exports must cease immediately

London, 3rd April 2024 [Updated 5th April 2024]: By continuing to permit the export of arms to Israel, despite reported internal legal advice suggesting the illegality of such a decision, the Foreign Office (FCDO) has violated its own regulations. This would mean FCDO and Business and Trade Department (DBT) officials may be aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza. Israel’s targeted drone strikes that killed three British citizens, aid volunteers working for the World Central Kitchen, brings this matter into even sharper focus, and raises the possibility that UK-made components were involved in the killing of British nationals in Gaza – particularly worrisome if this came after the government was advised by lawyers to cease its weapons exports.

ICJP have written to FCDO and DBT to demand an immediate end to arms exports to Israel in light of Israel’s flagrant violations of international law, and to request the disclosure of the legal advice it has reportedly received pertaining to Israel’s adherence to International Humanitarian Law (IHL). With their assaults on Gaza having killed at least 30,000 Palestinians, forcibly displacing 1.9 million people and an causing an increasing number of deaths-by-starvation, continuing to arm the State of Israel is beyond all reason and morality. We urge immediate government action including possible use of sanctions against the rogue state responsible for these acts of genocide.

After three targeted strikes on clearly marked World Central Kitchen vehicles, the movements of which were known by the Israeli military, Israeli media has reported that these strikes were conducted using an Elbit Systems Hermes 450 drone. UK Ministers have previously admitted that Hermes 450 drones may well have British-made engines – raising the potential that UK-made components were used in the killing of these three British nationals. The Elbit site responsible, UAV Engines, Staffordshire, was exporting engine components to Israel at least as recently as 2021.

The Government judges arms exports in relation to its self-imposed rules known as the ‘Strategic Export Licensing Criteria’ (SELC), wherein exports are prohibited if there is a clear risk that they might be used in serious violations of international law. This is also a binding obligation under Articles 6 and 7 of the UK-ratified Arms Trade Treaty. In the context of the genocide in Gaza that has claimed the lives of 30,000+ Palestinians, and innumerate grave violations of international law, it is clear that arms exports fall foul of these obligations.

ICJP’s letter to the Foreign Secretary reiterates previous warnings to the government that it’s decision likely violates the frameworks of the SELC, while also reminding the government of its obligations under international law – namely the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty, the Rome Statue, and the Genocide Convention. In a response provided by the government on 12th January 2024, it assessed that there were 12 extant licenses and 28 pending applications for arms most likely to be used by Israeli forces, including for combat aircraft.

Reports last weekend from The Guardian indicate that Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) lawyers support an assessment that these exports contravene regulations. A leaked recording was uncovered, with comments from Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. That recording stated that the government has been told that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza, thereby mandating a suspension of UK arms exports. It also alleges that the government has failed to make this advice public.

The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) is supporting Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and Al-Haq in their application for a judicial review against the government’s ongoing decision to continue extant and new arms export licenses to Israel. In February of this year, the initial application was rejected – a High Court judge claiming that the ‘high bar’ for proving the irrationality of the government’s decision had not been met. There could, surely, be no lower bar, than pointing to the government’s own lawyers suggesting that continued arms exports are irrational. As of Friday the 5th April, it has been confirmed that an oral permission hearing for this case must be granted before the 26th April.

It is inconceivable that there remains a question as to whether or not these licenses be approved, or that their approval should stand. Unfortunately, for both Palestinians and for the concept of the rule of law, the UK’s arms export regime is not technocratic but political. It has long faced accusations from experts of being comparatively ‘soft’ on the war crimes of its allies, leading to routine misuse of UK-supplied weapons, kept in check only with “self-serving reviews to manage reputation once controversy breaks out”, according to arms trade researcher Anna Stavrianakis.

There are numerous ways in which the export regime is not fit for purpose. When questions have been raised in Parliament regarding the illegality of weapons sales to Israel, their inquiries have been deflected with reference to the “arms export Committee, which is both independent and legally advised. It is the toughest regime in the world and Ministers should look to it for guidance”. This committee last met publicly in December 2022, and its responsibilities had already been transferred to the Business and Trade Committee. There is no such arms export committee now existing.

This weekend’s attacks on aid workers are not the first time that we have seen complicity in Israeli attacks on British nationals: with a UN investigation having supported UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians’ claims that British made weaponry, specifically F-16 fighter jets, were used in January attacks on its facilities and staff.

ICJP Public Affairs and Communications Officer Liam Doherty stated:

“By refusing to implement the very checks meant to prevent misuse of UK weaponry, the UK government has given carte blanche to any atrocities committed with them.

The illegality of arms sales to Israel is clear. The question, now, is how far government officials are willing to take it: in the knowledge that they may risk criminal liability for complicity in the atrocities which Israel has committed – and which it will continue to commit, unless its genocide is stopped.”


Notes to Editors:

  • The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians is an independent organisation of lawyers, politicians and academics who support the rights of Palestinians and aim to protect their rights through the law.
  • For more information, to arrange an interview with a spokesperson, or to view the letter sent to the Foreign Office and Department for Business and Trade, please contact the ICJP news desk at [email protected].