IT is extraordinary how difficult the UK Government and the official Labour opposition are finding it to apply the laws of war to what is happening in Gaza. Especially when the Government and those who would replace them are not only required to respect the laws of war but also to ensure they are respected by others.

Accordingly, it simply will not do for Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to duck the questions posed to him by SNP MP Brendan O’Hara and others this week about the legality of imposing a collective punishment on the civilian people of Gaza. Bombing which seems indiscriminate, the killing and maiming of thousands and the forcing of civilians from their homes while starving them of water, food, power and medicines require his attention.

When Cleverly claimed it was not his role “to make an assessment of the interpretation of events that are unfolding as we speak”, he was wrong. That is his job.

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Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions 1949 stipulates that all state parties are under a duty to respect and to ensure respect for the conventions. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, this means: “State parties not only apply the provisions themselves, but also do everything reasonably in their power to ensure that the provisions are respected universally.”

Today, the obligation to ensure respect is generally regarded as extending to the entire body of international humanitarian law.

Earlier this week, I attended a packed meeting of parliamentarians with the Palestinian ambassador. He pointed to irresponsible statements by Cleverly at the start of the war which could have been misinterpreted as an encouragement to the Israeli government to proceed as if they were somehow above the laws of war. He also pointed to the failure of the UK Government and the opposition to mention international law until pressurised to do so by public opinion.

A poll this week suggests that 76% of the UK population have been horrified by what they have seen unfold in Gaza and want a ceasefire. I am proud that the SNP – and judging from my emails, the Scottish public – are in the right place on this. How could anyone fail to be moved by the sight of innocent children wailing in pain or in torment beside the bodies of their parents and siblings. How can anyone think this is right or tolerable?

Just as we were moved to horror by the murderous barbarity of Hamas on October 7, so now should we be moved to horror by what is happening to the innocent civilians trapped in the tiny area of the Gaza Strip which is smaller than the Isle of Arran, but jam-packed with more than two million people, almost half of whom are under the age of 18.

Cleverly has the responsibility to take legal advice and to take a view. So does the leader of the opposition. Keir Starmer and his attorney general, Emily Thornberry, are both senior lawyers so their early and to some extent continuing equivocation is inexcusable.

If the British government fails to hold the Israeli government as well as Hamas to account, then a precedent will be set for others who wish to ignore the laws of war.

Politicians also have a duty to hold their government to account. They should not be afraid to do so for fear of being smeared as antisemites or terrorist sympathisers. It is very simple, really: international law is an objective framework that applies to everyone.

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Yesterday, I took part in an event in central London designed to remind people about what the rules of war stipulate. I was invited to do so by Dr Catriona Drew, lecturer in International Law at the Centre for the Study of Colonialism, Empire and International Law at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Dr Drew and her postgraduate law students are inviting international lawyers, law students, academics, barristers, judges, politicians, writers, artists and activists to join them for an unprecedented public reading of the Laws of War. Every weekday lunchtime for two hours, they will speak law to power by reading out the Laws of War until the conflict stops.

You can access more information about the material they are using at the International Committee of the Red Cross International Humanitarian Law Database – and you can find a link in the online version of this article.

Their objective is to bring public attention to the rules of international humanitarian law applicable to the conflict in Gaza and to the international legal duty of the UK Government to “do everything reasonably in their power” to ensure that these rules are respected, Yesterday, I was the first reader. And as I and others read through the laws, repeatedly, it was not hard to reach the view that both Hamas and the Israeli government are in breach. The prohibition against murder, torture, cruel or inhumane treatment and outrages upon personal dignity – in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment – have clearly been flouted by Hamas. As has the prohibition against rape and other forms of sexual violence. The prohibition against the taking of hostages will continue to be flouted until all of them are freed.

While this is no excuse and should not prevent them from being held to account for their crimes, we expect barbarity and law-breaking from terrorists. Our expectations of the governments of democratic countries are and should be different.

The laws of war are very clear that parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks must not be directed at civilians. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian populations are prohibited.

Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Collective punishments are prohibited. Launching an attack that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injuries, etc., is prohibited if it would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Anyone watching footage from Gaza must rightly doubt whether these laws are being obeyed by the Israeli government.

Likewise, directing an attack against a zone established to shelter the wounded, the sick and civilians from the effects of the hostilities is prohibited. Yet we have seen hospitals, churches and other sites sheltering displaced and injured civilians hit repeatedly.

The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited and yet the tiny amount of aid allowed in is a drop in the ocean of what is required. As Stuart McDonald put it at Prime Minister’s Questions, two million people cannot be sustained from 20 odd aid lorries.

Women, children and the elderly, disabled and infirm are entitled to special respect and protection. And yet we see the lives of pregnant women and babies put in jeopardy. Meanwhile, there are little or no painkillers left in Gaza, and there is no palliative care, no kidney dialysis and a lack of antiseptics, etc.

There is not enough space in this column to enumerate all the ways in which the laws of war are being breached in this conflict which is now the most pressing and immediate issue facing the world.

Dr Drew is hoping Scottish universities might join in with her project and I would encourage them to do so and National readers to go along and take part. The organisers hope to build momentum and get some media coverage to pressurise the UK Government to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law.