Law and Morality finally working hand in glove? – UN HRC Requests Reporting on Arms Transfers to Israel

12 April 2024 // WILPF International Secretariat

There are times when Law and morality work hand in glove; when pretended arguments as to Security, self defence and compliance with international law, meet the reality of overwhelming destruction and unbearable suffering. This is when law must force action, prevent atrocities and move us towards a restoration of sanity and common humanity.

This happened last week when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) paid attention to the multiple reports from UN bodies and courts and added its voice to those calling for an immediate ceasefire and compliance with international law. The HRC addresses many of the long list of harms perpetrated and, inter alia, goes to the heart of the demand WILPF has been making for decades: an end to the arms transfers to Israel and by requesting a report on this issue.

 An HRC’s Response – Long Overdue

The HRC did so in its resolution on the “Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the obligation to ensure accountability and justice” (A/HRC/55/L.30 adopted, as orally revised, on 5 April 2024). A clear stand from the HRC on this grave concern was overdue, especially given the repeated calls from independent UN human rights experts known as the Special Procedures of the HRC to end the support being given to Israel’s war against the besieged population of Gaza, for the prevention of genocide, and two Provisional Orders issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ had concluded that there is a plausible risk of genocide being committed in Gaza and hence, ordered provisional measures.

In its above-mentioned resolution, the HRC, among other things, “calls upon all States to cease the sale, transfer and diversion of arms, munitions and other military equipment to Israel, the occupying Power, in order to prevent further violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights.” It also calls upon all States “to refrain, in accordance with international norms and standards, from the export, sale or transfer of surveillance goods and technologies and less-lethal weapons, including ‘dual-use’ items, when they assess that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that such goods, technologies or weapons might be used to violate or abuse human rights.” 

It condemns the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects by Israel in populated areas in Gaza, underlining the “reverberating effects of such weapons on hospitals, schools, water, electricity and shelter, which are affecting millions of Palestinians”. It also condemns “the use of artificial intelligence to aid military decision-making that may contribute to the commission of international crimes.”

Putting a spotlight on who is directly and indirectly providing arms and other support and risking complicity in crimes

The HRC has also requested the “Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel” to report on “both the direct and indirect transfer or sale of arms, munitions, parts, components and dual use items to Israel, the occupying Power, including those that have been used during the Israeli military operation in Gaza since 7 October 2023, and to analyse the legal consequences of these transfers, applying international humanitarian law, customary international law related to State responsibility and the Arms Trade Treaty.” The Commission is to present this report to the HRC’s fifty-ninth session (June/July 2025). 

This report can shed light on the role of both exporting States and companies in aiding and abetting Israel’s violations and crimes by transferring and selling arms to Israel. States and companies have continued to transfer arms despite the ample evidence of crimes and other serious violations being committed, and despite the 26 January 2024 International Court of Justice’s finding of a plausible risk of genocide, a finding to which the HRC’s resolution refers. This Commission of Inquiry’s report can thus contribute to efforts, including legal actions at the national level, towards ensuring accountability for States and companies that continue to ignore these warnings. 

The draft resolution was presented by Pakistan on behalf of States Members of the United Nations that are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (except Albania, Cameroon and Togo), jointly with the State of Palestine, Bolivia and Cuba. Chile, Colombia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Eritrea, Indonesia, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, and Venezuela also joined the cosponsors.

The resolution was adopted with 28 votes in favour, six against and 13 abstentions; the vote was requested by the United States (US). The HRC proceedings on the vote can be watched here.

This was the time geopolitical interests and militarism as Security should have been subordinated, particularly in the context of the HRC. Many refused to do so and WILPF deplores the US’ request both for a vote and of course, its vote against the resolution, and the decision of Argentina, Bulgaria, Germany, Malawi, and Paraguay to join the US. We also regret that Albania, Benin, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, France, Georgia, India, Japan, Lithuania, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Romania did not vote in favour, choosing to abstain instead. There is compliance with legal obligation or there is not. States cannot pick and choose. The consequences of such conduct are dire indeed.

HRC outcomes follows other UN and civil society warnings

Independent UN human rights experts known as the Special Procedures of the HRC have repeatedly expressed grave concerns about the support of third States to Israel’s actions. In November 2023, these experts called on the “international community to prevent genocide against the Palestinian people,” Special Procedures expressed their profound concern about “the support of certain governments for Israel’s strategy of warfare against the besieged population of Gaza, and the failure of the international system to mobilise to prevent genocide.” In February 2024, they issued a resounding warning: “All States must not be complicit in international crimes through arms transfers. They must do their part to urgently end the unrelenting humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.” The experts stressed that the need for an arms embargo on Israel is heightened by the International Court of Justice’s ruling on 26 January 2024 that there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and the continuing serious harm to civilians since then.” On 26 March 2024, Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories occupied since 1967 presented her report entitled ‘Anatomy of a Genocide,’ to the HRC. In presenting the report, she implored “Member States to abide by their obligations which start with imposing an arms embargo and sanctions on Israel.” 

On 13 October 2023, WILPF Secretary General made an urgent appeal for the prevention of genocide, urging in the strongest possible terms all States to prioritise the saving of lives over politics. In November 2023, an urgent call for a two-way arms embargo on Israel was issued by Al Haq, WILPF and ISHR, and endorsed by over 170 organisations. This call follows on deep concerns over the export of arms and weapons technologies to Israel expressed for years by WILPF in statements on the situation in Palestine. For example, a 2010 WILPF’s legal analysis made in connection with the report by the HRC’s high-level fact-finding mission to Beit Hanoun (UN document: A/HRC/9/26) indicated the risk of complicity of States exporting arms and weapons technologies to Israel. 

In 2021, in a joint statement with the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC) to the HRC’s 30th special session on the grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory including East Jerusalem, WILPF recommended “an immediate and comprehensive arms embargo”. On that occasion, while the HRC did not call for an arms embargo, it urged “all States to refrain from transferring arms when they assess, in accordance with applicable national procedures and international obligations and standards, that there is a clear risk that such arms might be used to commit or facilitate serious violations for abuses of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law” (resolution A/HRC/RES/S-30/1).