“Yes, this does break international law.” The words of the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, casually trotted out earlier this month, should have ended his career. It should have brought down this government. Instead, law-breaking now seems to be a prerequisite for legislation brought forward by Boris Johnson’s Tory Government.
The mind boggles at the fact that, almost exactly a year ago today, Home Secretary Priti Patel could stand in front of the party faithful at Conservative Party conference and boast that the Tories were the “party of law and order once again”. Once again?
As recently as 2015, Theresa May was taken to court by human rights campaigners after she ordered a rewrite of the Ministerial Code which sets out the standard of conduct expected by ministers. She wanted a reference to “complying with... international law and treaty obligations” removed – and she got it.
“There is no doubt,” wrote Paul Jenkins, formerly the Government’s most senior legal advisor, “that they will regard the change as bolstering, in a most satisfying way, their contempt for the rule of international law.”
None of this is new. In February last year – months before Patel’s speech – The Hague ordered the UK to hand back the Chagos Islands to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible”, stating that continued British occupation of the Chagos Islands is illegal and “constitutes a wrongful act”. The UN General Assembly condemned the UK’s continued control of the territory and called for it to be returned to Mauritius. The UK Government ignored them both.
Make no mistake – this rot runs deep. This is a government which talks the talk at home, but which has long done everything it can do avoid its international legal obligations.
The Conservative Party has never been the party of law and order. It’s just that now, during the triple threat of an economic, health and constitutional crisis, Boris Johnson’s plain inability to govern has seen him take increasingly desperate measures at home.
But as Douglas Ross – now leader of the Scottish Tories – pointed out in his resignation statement after Dominic Cummings’ jaunt to Barnard Castle, it is untenable for the Government to lay down the law for the public during this crisis yet seek to dodge and flout it themselves.
Boris isn’t listening. Two weeks ago, the Government went far beyond what anyone would have thought: it openly announced it would break the law. Last week, the Government brought forward the Overseas Operations Bill, which would put a time limit on prosecutions for crimes committed by members of the Armed Forces. This Bill, which the former Chief of the Defence Staff has said will bring about the “de facto decriminalisation of torture”, flouts the internationally agreed rules of warfare and erodes the international rules-based order that the United Kingdom helped to create.
To force through its short-sighted political agenda, this Government is driving a coach and horses through the international order that has guided diplomatic relations for decades. Piece by piece, it is dismantling the frameworks which have ensured stability, prosperity and safety for billions across the world and replacing them with legislation that dictators and despots around the world will eye up with envy and ask: “If the United Kingdom can break the law, why can’t I?”
The system of international law is not perfect – I will be the first to admit that. None of us who remember the Iraq War and the horrors of Abu Ghraib can pretend otherwise. Likewise, breaches of it are all too common today: from the Chagos Islands to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, might all too often comes before right.
But we cannot abandon international law altogether. To paraphrase the former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the international rules-based order “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”. As it seeks to rip up the rulebook it helped write, the UK Government would do well to remember that – for its own good.
Just a few short months ago, the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House of Commons where he condemned China’s actions in Hong Kong, noting that “China has now written into law wide-ranging exemptions, which cannot credibly be reconciled with its international obligations, or indeed its responsibilities as a leading member of the international community”. Few could disagree. But it remains a blinding truth that the UK Government simply cannot credibly make such statements about foreign countries while it flouts the law at home and abroad.
It damages the UK’s international reputation as an upholder of the international rules-based order and – as we already see – weakens the credibility and legitimacy of any attempts made to enforce international norms and obligations on other countries. It will also put our relationships with international partners at grave risk.
The UK Government must decide now what image it wants to project on the international stage and whether it is comfortable with ‘Global Britain’ becoming synonymous with demagoguery and lawbreaking. I fear it might already be too late. As Boris Johnson seeks to push through his illiberal political agenda, he makes the case for the dissolution of the Union stronger every day. Scotland is an internationalist, outward-looking country where the rule of law is respected by government – to this day, the 2014 referendum remains the gold standard internationally for votes of that kind – and from the conversations I have in Stirling, and even down in London, it is clear that good people are increasingly unhappy with being hitched to Boris Johnson’s wagon.
We are being rushed to hell in a handcart, squeezed next to Ruth Davidson clad in ermine and pushed along by Dominic Cummings. The people of Scotland deserve better than this. We deserve the right to choose another path.
Alyn Smith is the SNP MP for Stirling