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Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Our own very specific and limited international outlaws

Nobody can deny we are in unprecedented times. Not only do we have a global pandemic tearing through our communities, restricting our freedoms, threatening our health, and undermining our social cohesion, but we are facing a major economic crisis from Brexit and are being ruled by a government who have no respect for international law, and who are clearing out anybody in the civil service who might stand up to them.

The latest civil servant to lead is Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the government's legal department who could not stand by and watch ministers take actions in breach of international law. He joins Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, Simon McDonald from the Foreign Office, Philip Rutnam from the Home Office, Richard Heaton from Justice, and Jonathan Slater from Education in departing the ranks of government in an unprecedented purge.

Astonishingly, a government minister actually stood up in the House of Commons yesterday and admitted that the latest government legislation, which overrides part of the withdrawal agreement, breaks international law, albeit 'in a very specific and limited way'. I think he will find that most breaches of the law are quite specific and limited, after all not many people will go about breaking them all at once.

As the Guardian points out this remarkable admission by Brandon Lewis, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, followed the resignation of the most senior legal civil servant and has raised questions over the future of justice secretary, Robert Buckland, and attorney general, Suella Braverman, both of whom have taken oaths to uphold the rule of law:

One EU diplomat suggested the minister’s admission the UK was prepared to break international law could have an immediate impact on the current talks in London between UK chief negotiator David Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier.

“If true, it would be a massive blow to the UK’s international reputation and have huge negative consequences on the current talks with the EU”, the source said.

“It would be in Britain’s best interests to clarify its plans now, urgently, and assure the EU that it will continue to honour its commitments under the withdrawal agreement under all circumstances. Who would want to agree trade deals with a country that doesn’t implement international treaties? It would ultimately be a self-defeating strategy.”

What the Prime Minister does not appear to understand (or if he does, he doesn't care) is the impact this admission and his actions will have on his much-vaunted ambition to negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries. He may think he can snub Europe, where most of our trade is conducted and sod the consequences for the economy, but who is going to sign agreements with us in the future when we have proved we cannot be trusted to keep out word?

As the chair of the foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat said: “Our entire economy is based on the perception that people have of the UK’s adherence to the rule of law. I hope it’s clear where I stand on that.”

And what of the ministerial code? The paper says that legal experts including Lord Anderson, former terror watchdog and member of the House of Lords justice committee, said the code still mandated ministers to uphold international law following a court of appeal ruling in 2018, which concluded there was an “overarching” duty of ministers to comply with international law. Is nobody policing that code?

The withdrawal agreement which the government is trying to nullify was precisely the one that Boris Johnson heralded as a major win for the UK and which he campaigned for in the General Election. It was the agreement that got him his 80 seat majority. And yet now he tells us it was flawed and inadequate, and needs to be over-ridden.

This is not just a breach of trust with the international community but with the British people as well and makes the break-up of the United Kingdom more likely.
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