Choose words ‘carefully’ over Israel-Gaza conflict, Attorney General tells MPs

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Choose words ‘carefully’ over Israel-Gaza conflict, Attorney General tells MPs

Victoria Prentis insisted the Government respects the rulings of the ICJ, adding: “But that doesn’t mean we think every case before it is well brought.”

Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 12, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 12, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Government’s top law officer has advised MPs to choose their words “carefully” over the Israel-Hamas conflict, amid warnings the UK could be “complicit in genocide”.

Attorney General Victoria Prentis insisted the Government respects the rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), adding: “But that doesn’t mean we think every case before it is well brought.”

Ms Prentis added it is not considered “particularly helpful” for terms such as “genocide” to be used without a formal final ruling of the ICJ.

The ICJ’s interim ruling stopped short of ordering a ceasefire in Gaza in a genocide case filed by South Africa, but it demanded that Israel tries to contain death and damage in its military offensive.

Ms Prentis told Attorney General questions in the Commons: “We don’t feel that that case was particularly helpful at this moment in the negotiation process.

“We absolutely respect the ICJ, I’ve appeared there myself, and we understand that the interim measures order that was given is, of course, binding on the parties.

“Elements of that provisional measures order are extremely sensible and we would wholeheartedly respect them and call, as the ICJ has done, for aid to go in and the hostages to come out immediately.

“That is the right way to proceed if we’re ever to achieve a permanent ceasefire and ultimately a resolution of this dreadful conflict.

“However, we do not think terms such as ‘genocide’ without a formal final ruling of the court are ones that are particularly helpful to use.”

Conservative Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee, said MPs should be “careful about making more of a preliminary finding than might otherwise be the case before the final litigation” is concluded.

Ms Prentis said “words really matter”, adding: “It is very important, particularly in this very long-running and difficult conflict, that we all choose our words very carefully.

“We do respect the rulings of the ICJ, of course we do, but that doesn’t mean we think every case before it is well brought.”

Labour MP Imran Hussain (Bradford East) said the UK is at risk of being “complicit in genocide” should the ICJ rule the situation is genocide and it is found that civilians were killed by UK-sold weapons.

He said: “As one of the signatories of the genocide convention the UK Government has a clear responsibility to not only punish but also, under article one, to undertake to prevent genocide as one of the gravest crimes under international law.

“Given that the Government will still sell arms to the Israeli military after the International Court of Justice found the actions in Gaza to plausibly be in breach of the genocide convention, just what legal advice has she provided to the Foreign Office that allows her to fulfil this legal obligation to prevent genocide at the same time as selling arms?

“And does it not leave the UK complicit in genocide if the ICJ ultimately rules that it is genocide and it’s proven that civilians were killed by UK-sold arms?”

One Conservative MP could be heard shouting: “Is this Labour policy?”

Ms Prentis replied: “We respect the independence of the ICJ, we have considerable concerns about this case, which is not helpful in the goal of achieving a sustainable ceasefire.

“We accept the court has made a provisional measures order and much of that order we wholeheartedly agree with. We would, however, suggest that we do not bandy around terms such as ‘genocide’ until there’s been a final ruling of the court.”

Ms Prentis went on to outline how Whitehall departments approach decisions on export licensing, noting the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office continues to assess Israel’s “commitment and capability” to comply with international humanitarian law.

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