Letter from Legal Experts on Labour’s position on the commission of war crimes

by | 19 Oct 2023

Dear Mr Starmer,

We, the undersigned, are writing to request that the Labour party immediately clarify its position on the prohibition of collective punishment.

On 11 October, you were asked on LBC radio if Israel’s siege of Gaza, and the cutting off of power and water, was appropriate. You responded “I think Israel does have that right”, adding that “obviously everything should be done within international law.” Later that same day, the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry, was asked the following question on BBC Newsnight: “do you think cutting off food, water and electricity is within international law.” Her response was that “Israel has an absolute right to defend itself against terrorism.” When pressed on the issue of the legality of such measures, she appeared to express confusion over the precise scope of the prohibition of collective punishment and possible exceptions to it, saying “I don’t know, because at the moment we’re in the middle of a hot war, and Israel is in the middle of defending itself.”

On 15 October, you issued a statement restating that “Israel has the right, indeed the duty, to defend herself” and calling on “all parties to act in line with international law, including allowing humanitarian access of food, water, electricity and medicines to Gaza”. This statement does nothing to rescind your tacit approval of Israel’s collective punishment of the population of Gaza. Again on 15 October, on BBC One, David Lammy, Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, was reminded that the forcible transfer of a population breaches international law and was asked if he supported the order. He replied “it’s not a yes or a no. This is a war situation”. 

We write to remind you that international law is very clear on these issues. The right to self-defence is not unqualified, it is bound by long-standing laws that form one of the pillars of a rules-based international order. International humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocols, prohibits collective punishment in all circumstances. The imposition of collective punishment can be considered a war crime under customary international law. The cutting off of food, water and electricity to the population of Gaza until the Israeli hostages are released is a clear cut case of collective punishment. Indiscriminate bombing of populated areas, the use of white phosphorus, as documented by Human Rights Watch on 12 October, and the forced transfer of a population are incompatible with international humanitarian law. The atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October and its slaughter of Israeli civilians do not abrogate international humanitarian law; on the contrary, these laws were designed for precisely these circumstances.

We request that you immediately issue a public and detailed clarification of Labour’s legal position on collective punishment and on the forcible transfer of civilians. We request that you confirm that you and your party oppose the commission of war crimes, wherever and whenever they may occur. 

In that light we draw your attention to the positions of, amongst many others, the Irish government, the Scottish First Minister, the UN Secretary General, the International Committee of the Red Cross, all of whom have denounced collective punishment and breaches of international humanitarian law. 


Yours sincerely,

Professor Michelle Farrell, Professor of International Law, University of Liverpool 

Professor Donatella Alessandrini, Kent Law School

Professor Yutaka Arai-Takahashi, Professor in International Human Rights Law and Legal Philosophy, Brussels School of Int’l Studies (BSIS), University of Kent, Brussels

Dr. Judith Bueno De Mesquita, University of Essex

Dr. Michelle Burgis-Kasthala, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Luigi Daniele, Senior Lecturer in Law, Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University

Dr. Lauren Dempster, School of Law, Queens University Belfast

Dr. Alice Donald, Associate Professor, School of Law and Social Sciences, Middlesex University 

Professor Máiréad Enright, Professor of Feminist Legal Studies, Birmingham Law School

Professor Neve Gordon, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Queen Mary University of London 

Professor Penny Green, Professor of Law and Globalisation, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Alan Greene, Reader in Constitutional law and Human Rights, Birmingham Law School

Dr. Shahd Hammouri, Kent Law School

Dr. Ciara Hackett, Senior Lecturer in Law, Queens University Belfast

Dr. Kevin Hearty – Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Sciences Education and Social Work, Queens University Belfast

Professor Christian Henderson, Professor of International Law, University of Sussex.

Dr. Erika Jiménez, School of Law, Queens University Belfast

Dr. Emily Jones, Newcastle Law School

Dr. Henry Jones, Associate Professor, Durham Law School 

Dr. Sarah Kendall, Reader in International Law, Kent Law School

Dr. Tor Krever, Assistant Professor in International Law, University of Cambridge

Professor Louise Mallinder, Professor of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Professor Triestino Marinello, School of Law, Liverpool John Moores University

Professor Alison MacKenzie, School of Social Sciences Education and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Professor Natasa Mavronicola, Professor of Human Rights Law, Birmingham Law School

Dr. Lydia Morgan, Associate Professor, Birmingham Law School 

Dr. Julie McCandless, Senior Lecturer, Kent Law School

Dr. Ben Murphy, School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool

Dr. Daragh Murray, Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London 

Professor Catherine O’ Rourke, Professor of Global Law, Durham Law School

Dr. A. M. Panepinto, Reader, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Dr. Nicola Perugini, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh 

Professor Nicola Pratt, Professor of the International Politics of the Middle East, University of Warwick

Dr. Flora Renz, Senior Lecturer in Law, Kent Law School

Dr. Jane Rooney, Associate Professor in International Law, Durham Law School

Professor Emeritus Phil Scraton, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Professor Mohammad (Shahab) Shahabuddin, Professor of International Law and Human Rights, Birmingham Law School 

Dr. Angela Sherwood, Lecturer in Law, Queen Mary University of London

Dr. Bethany Shiner, Senior Lecturer in Law, Middlesex Law School.

Dr. Rose Sydney-Parfitt, Senior Lecturer, Kent Law School 

Dr. Marina Velickovic, School of Law, University of Warwick

Professor Illan Wall, School of Law, University of Warwick

Professor David Whyte, Director, Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice, Queen Mary University of London

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