UK Suspended Funding to UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees over Evidence Allegedly Obtained Through Torture

The UK Government’s decision to suspend funding the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) was based on evidence obtained through torture, according to reports.

On 26 January, the UN agency which provides aid and essential services to Palestinians, announced an investigation into information provided by the Israeli authorities about the alleged involvement of UNRWA employees in the 7 October attack on Israel. The UK responded to the accusation within a day, announcing, along with 16 other countries, that it would suspend funding to UNRWA.

In March, Reuters news agency and others reported on the circulation of an unpublished UNRWA report that claimed the Israeli intelligence was based on information obtained through abuses, including torture of UNRWA staff, who were allegedly subjected to “severe beatings, waterboarding, and threats of harm to family members” while in Israeli detention.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, REDRESS and Freedom from Torture urged the Government to ensure that any intelligence provided by the Israeli authorities used by the UK to inform its response to this crisis had not been obtained by torture or other ill-treatment.

These allegations emerge amidst a long-standing use of torture by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities and a serious escalation of abuse since 7 October that has been described by global anti-torture organisations as a “torture crisis”. The number of Palestinians held in Israeli detention facilities has surged alongside reports of widespread torture at the hands of Israeli military, security and police personnel.

Detainees are held incommunicado, where they are at a heightened risk of torture, especially considering alarming reports of multiple deaths in Israeli detention facilities since the escalation in hostilities. Israel has also severely restricted access by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which serve as a crucial safeguard against torture.

UN experts have also called for investigations into “credible allegations of egregious human rights violations”, including actual and threatened sexual violence, against Palestinian women and girls held in Israeli custody in Gaza and the West Bank since 7 October.

The inadmissibility of evidence obtained through torture in any proceedings is well-established in both UK and International law. The absolute prohibition on torture is a foundational norm of the rules-based international system, and the rule against use of torture evidence is both an essential component of the absolute ban and an important means of ensuring it is not violated.

The UK has rightly condemned the heinous acts of violence perpetrated by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October and has repeatedly called for the release of hostages in Gaza, who remain at risk of further abuses. However, the UK has been far more reticent in its response to reports of widespread use of torture by Israel.

At this critical moment, the UK must demonstrate principled global leadership and safeguard the credibility of its torture prevention efforts by ensuring that the absolute prohibition against torture is consistently upheld.

For media queries, please contact:  Eva Sanchis, REDRESS’ Head of Communications, on [email protected] or +44 (0)20 7793 1777

UN Photo/Mark Garten