What It Actually Means If The Government Breaks International Law - Rugby and Daventry Radio Station Midlands UK            

What It Actually Means If The Government Breaks International Law

Written by on September 9, 2020

Article Published on Wednesday September 9, 2020 7:00 PM by


What It Actually Means If The Government Breaks International Law


Boris Johnson today found himself in a bit of a tight spot in the Commons as he was forced to say everybody should obey the law – just a day after his own government admitted it would be breaking it.

The PM was asked to explain why he thinks it is acceptable for his administration to misbehave while expecting people to follow new coronavirus restrictions on social gatherings.

Johnson replied: “We expect everybody in this country to obey the law.”

The response drew quite the reaction on social media.

What’s all the fuss about?

Boris Johnson is trying to unpick parts of the withdrawal agreement (WA) he negotiated last year to give UK ministers key powers to decide when EU rules apply to Northern Ireland.

But there’s a slight issue – on Tuesday, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis was forced to admit the proposals “break international law” in a “very specific and limited way”.

That sounds serious

That’s because it is.

What actually is international law?

According to the United Nations, international law is “among the greatest [of its] achievements” and “is central to promoting economic and social development, as well as to advancing international peace and security”.

In layman’s terms, it’s the rules that countries follow on a global level in order to avoid nasty things like war, genocide, economic ruin and general bickering.

Which law will the government be breaking?

In January, the government secured the UK’s departure from the EU, a process that was laid down in international law when the WA was agreed between Britain and Europe.

The WA contained something called the Northern Ireland protocol, which states Northern Ireland will continue to follow single market rules for some goods and administer the EU’s customs code at its ports.

It was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, but unionists have been vehemently opposed to it, insisting it instead creates an economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The WA states that it is down to a trade deal (currently being negotiated) to decide which goods will be the subject of EU tariffs. In the absence of one, the default is: full checks on everything, as though Northern Ireland remained part of the EU.

But Johnson, looking ahead to the possibility of no trade deal being struck, now wants to change that so that the UK gets a unilateral say.

By now saying it will pick and choose when EU rules will apply to Northern Ireland, the UK government will be breaking the WA, which is international law.

But only in a ‘very specific and limited way’…

Hmm, that doesn’t really make any difference, as a whole host of people have pointed out. 

So who’s getting arrested?

Nobody. Unlike domestic law, which is maintained and policed by the state in which it applies, international law has always been a bit more… pliable.

In the absence of a global police force or a United Nations that isn’t riven by individual state interests, countries have often been able to get away with breaking international laws without major consequences.

One of the most infamous examples of this in modern history is the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq which breached international law, resulted in the deaths of hundred of thousands of people yet not one person has been held to account.

And even when people are brought to justice, such as for war crimes committed during the Bosnian war in the 90s, it can take decades.

Obviously, the UK government’s actions are not comparable, but it does suggest on the international stage, at least, that the PM doesn’t have too much to fear.

What will happen?

While the international response might be muted, Johnson does face a huge domestic backlash to the plans.

Senior Conservatives have expressed dismay, warning the move risks undermining Britain’s standing and reputation as an upholder of international law.

Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons Defence Committee, said that if the government went through with the changes to the agreement – which secured the UK’s departure from the EU in January – it would “lose the moral high ground”.

“This is about the rule of law and our resolve and commitment to uphold it,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“To unilaterally ignore any treaty in its obligations which we’ve signed and submitted to the United Nations would actually go against everything we believe in.”

However, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted the changes were necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if they failed to get a free trade deal with the EU.

“The decision we’ve made is to put the peace process first, first and foremost, as our absolute top international obligation,” he told the Today programme.

So nothing will happen then?

Probably not.

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