Boris Johnson found himself in a tough spot in the House of Commons today as he was forced to say everyone should obey the law – just a day after his own government admitted he would would violate.
The Prime Minister has been asked to explain why he thinks it’s okay for his administration to misbehave while expecting people to follow new coronavirus restrictions on social gatherings.
Johnson replied, “We expect everyone in this country to obey the law.”
The response sparked strong reactions on social media.
Why such a commotion?
Boris Johnson is trying to undo parts of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) he brokered last year to give UK ministers key powers to decide when EU rules apply to Northern Ireland North.
But there is a slight problem – on Tuesday Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was forced to admit the proposals “break international law” in a “very specific and limited way”.
It looks serious
What is international law?
According to the United Nations, international law is “among the greatest [of its] achievements” and “is essential for promoting economic and social development, as well as for advancing international peace and security”.
Simply put, these are the rules that countries follow globally in order to avoid nasty things like war, genocide, economic ruin, and general strife.
What law will the government break?
In January, the government secured Britain’s departure from the EU, a process provided for in international law when Britain agreed with Europe.
The WA contained something called the Northern Ireland Protocol, which states that Northern Ireland will continue to follow single market rules for certain goods and administer the EU customs code at its ports.
It was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, but Unionists have vehemently opposed it, insisting it instead creates an economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world. UK.
The WA states that it is up to a trade agreement (currently under negotiation) to decide which goods will be subject to EU tariffs. In the absence of one, the default is: full controls over everything, as if Northern Ireland were still part of the EU.
But Johnson, considering the possibility of no trade deal being agreed, now wants to change that so the UK has a unilateral say.
By saying now that it will choose when EU rules apply to Northern Ireland, the UK government will be breaking WA, which is international law.
But only in a “very specific and limited way”…
Hmm, it doesn’t really make a difference, as many people have pointed out.
So who gets arrested?
Person. Unlike domestic law, which is maintained and monitored by the state in which it applies, international law has always been a bit more…flexible.
In the absence of a global police force or a United Nations that is not divided 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 US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which violated international lawled to the the death of hundreds of thousands of people yet not a single person has been held responsible.
And even when people are brought to justice, as for war crimes committed during the Bosnian war in the 1990sit can take decades.
Obviously, the actions of the British government are not comparable, but it suggests on the international scene, at least, that the Prime Minister does not have too much to fear.
What’s going to happen ?
While the international response may be muted, Johnson faces a huge domestic backlash to the plans.
Senior Tories have expressed dismay, warning that the move risks damaging Britain’s position and reputation as a defender of international law.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defense Committee, said if the government agreed to changes to the deal – which guaranteed the UK’s departure from the EU in January – it would “lose morale”.
“It’s about the rule of law and our determination and commitment to uphold it,” he told BBC Radio 4 Today.
“To unilaterally ignore any treaty obligations that we have signed and submitted to the United Nations would actually go against everything we believe in.”
However, Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted the changes were needed to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland if they failed to strike a free trade deal with the EU.
“The decision we have made is to put the peace process first and foremost as our absolute international obligation,” he told the Today programme.