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Shift in UK’s position on Gaza? Richard Hermer’s appointment as Attorney General sparks speculation

Richard Hermer KC’s appointment as United Kingdom’s attorney general has raised questions about a potential shift in the UK’s stance on Gaza. Known for his human rights advocacy, Hermer’s history of challenging state actions may signal Labour’s willingness to adopt a more assertive position on the issue.

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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM — The recent appointment of Richard Hermer KC as the attorney general for England and Wales has raised questions about whether this signifies a shift in the UK’s stance on Gaza.

Hermer, a renowned human rights lawyer, has a history of pushing legal boundaries and holding states and corporations accountable, making him a notable figure in the field.

Hermer’s career has been marked by significant cases scrutinizing the UK’s foreign policy, including judicial reviews that led to inquiries into British Special Forces’ actions in Afghanistan and a landmark Supreme Court case involving evidence sharing with the US in terrorist cases.

His advocacy extends to challenging multinational corporations, exemplified by his role in the UK Supreme Court’s decision allowing Nigerian villagers to sue Shell for oil spills.

As one of a group of Jewish lawyers who publicly urged Israel to adhere to international law in its response to Hamas attacks, Hermer’s legal perspectives are well-documented. His appointment by Sir Keir Starmer, who leads a newly elected Labour government, has stirred debate over potential changes in the UK’s foreign policy, particularly regarding Gaza.

Background and Legal Career

Born in Wales, Hermer’s education in politics and modern history at the University of Manchester set the foundation for his legal career. Called to the bar in 1993, he quickly established himself in human rights and international law, handling cases related to the Iraq conflict and Guantanamo Bay. His peers, such as Gavin Millar KC and Geoffrey Robertson KC, commend his legal acumen and anticipate his significant contribution to government policies.

Hermer’s legal experience includes leading high-profile cases against multinational corporations and advising on sensitive legal matters. His recent commission by Labour to assess a Conservative bill on human rights abuses highlights his continued commitment to legal scrutiny.

Implications for Gaza

Hermer’s outspoken stance on Gaza, including his visit to the region and his open letter in the Financial Times, reflects a nuanced understanding of international law’s application in conflict zones. Some Labour party officials suggest that Starmer’s choice of Hermer indicates a willingness to adopt a more assertive position on Gaza, a contentious issue that influenced the recent election results.

Labour had feared losing votes over Gaza since Starmer drew criticism last year after Hamas launched its October 7 attack on Israel, followed by Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza. Starmer, speaking to UK radio station LBC in October, stated that Israel “has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinian civilians in Gaza, but added, “Obviously, everything should be done within international law.”

This comment sparked outrage among left-wing and Muslim voters, leading to protests outside the constituency offices of several Labour MPs and complaints of harassment. The anger was further compounded when Labour refused to back a Scottish National Party (SNP) motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Israel and Gaza, although Labour did pass its own similar motion shortly afterwards.

Many of the seats where Labour appears to have lost votes over its position on Gaza have sizable Muslim populations. According to the 2021 census, the populations of Leicester, Birmingham, Ilford, and Blackburn are all more than 20% Muslim.

David Lammy, the new foreign secretary, hinted at a “more balanced” approach to the Israel-Gaza conflict, potentially signalling a departure from previous policies. Hermer’s potential involvement in advising on the International Criminal Court’s proceedings against Israeli leaders for alleged war crimes adds another layer of complexity to the UK’s diplomatic stance.

Political Reactions and Future Prospects

Hermer’s unexpected appointment, bypassing expected candidate Emily Thornberry, underscores the strategic significance attributed to his legal expertise. Thornberry, while expressing disappointment, acknowledged Hermer’s superior legal prowess. The legal community, including Law Society president Nick Emmerson and Bar chair Sam Townend KC, has welcomed Hermer’s appointment, emphasizing his experience and commitment to the rule of law.

As attorney general, Hermer’s responsibilities will encompass providing legal advice to ministers, overseeing the Serious Fraud Office and Crown Prosecution Service, and potentially representing the government in high-stakes legal battles. His extensive background suggests he will play a crucial role in navigating the UK’s legal and foreign policy challenges, including those related to Gaza.

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