With the Internal Market Bill up for debate today it is probably worth looking at why maintaining rather than breaking international law is important if the UK wishes to have any serious place in the international community.
First published in September 2020.
First off, it can reasonably be argued that international law reinforces rather than undermines sovereignty. Even in cases, such as with the EU, where majority of States make binding decisions, individual states have voluntarily agreed to be bound by them, and, as shown by Brexit, can leave them.
It is not an easy pitch to make for some people. After all, how can you be “sovereign” if bound by laws beyond your own government’s ability to amend? Sovereignty does not equal autonomy though.
That is kind of crucial to this.
A state is sovereign – and funnily enough international law guarantees that – if it wants, as the UK has said it does, to be a serious player on the international stage.
It cannot act entirely with a view to autonomy though.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a company looking for a new firm to do business with. Are you really likely to sign a contract with one which has already demonstrated that it cannot be trusted and is willing to break that agreement at a moment’s notice?
We are seeing arguments from the government that the EU has acted in “bad faith” regarding the Withdrawal Agreement. As Steve Peers eloquently explains here though, they already had systems to deal with this if it was the case.
At the core of this whole debate, and largely dismissed by the government, such as Matt Hancock on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the other day, is that despite its claims otherwise this would potentially set a precedent for other countries to violate international law, particularly against the UK.
There are no “specific and limited”, as Brandon Lewis said, or “acceptable versus unacceptable” (Robert Buckland) ways of violating international law which do not open the door for other countries, or future governments, to do so.
We have seen Boris Johnson talk about having essentially opt outs from the Human Rights Act and ignoring the European Convention on Human Rights for example. The Internal Market Bill paves the way for that and other violations.
Why does it matter though? Surely the UK doesn’t need such protection. What about Gibraltar, Hong Kong, the Falklands? All of these and the UK’s role in them rely on “specific and limited” international laws. Laws which other countries would be happy to see gone.
What about the wider implications? Once you have decided that domestic laws supersede international ones, something which in and of itself is fundamentally incorrect, where does it end? Is any treaty binding should the government decide otherwise?
The problem you have here is that as much as you may want to argue that it helps to “Get Brexit Done”, it is in itself somewhat disingenuous considering Boris Johnson pushed through the Withdrawal Agreement he now wants to abandon and campaigned on an “oven ready deal”.
How certain are you about every other country in the world and every other future government? International law serves a purpose by holding States to account and ensuring we can, in theory, have a rules based order to deal between them and protect citizens.
When Donald Trump cracked about “shooting migrants” a couple of years ago, the Nigerian army used it as an excuse to do just that. Take a second and think what repercussions the sixth richest country in the world saying it can break international law will have...
Passing the Internal Market Bill would demonstrate not only that the UK could not be trusted on any future deal, but also that international law could be violated. The precedent that sets alone will cause untold damage to both the UK’s reputation and the international order.🔷
Dan Sohege, Human rights advocate, international refugee law specialist, immigration economist, charity fundraising professional and Director of Stand For All.
Check their Voting Record:
🗳️ Matt Hancock