Political leaders in the U.S. and U.K. have made concerning statements in recent days that have indicated a disregard for the rule of law. Trump ally Roger Stone, who had been convicted of lying to congress and witness tampering in the Russia investigating only to have his prison sentence commuted by the President, is reported in the Guardian to have said that Trump should “seize total power and jail prominent figures including Bill and Hillary Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg if he loses to Joe Biden in November.” Trump himself said in a Fox News interview on Sunday that he would “put down” left-wing protests on election night using the Insurrection Act of 1807, threatening the violent suppression of citizens’ right to protest. There are fears that Trump will not allow a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election, as his former lawyer Michael Cohen expressed in his testimony at a 2019 Senate hearing.
Members of the British Government have made equally alarming proclamations regarding their plan to introduce the U.K. Internal Market Bill, a piece of legislation that has caused great concern both within the U.K. and internationally due to the fact it breaks international law by providing ministers with powers that breach the U.K.’s obligations under the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed earlier this year. The bill has been criticized by the Scottish Government as an “assault on devolution,” and also has the potential to jeopardize the peace process in Ireland if it results in a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
With just a few months to agree a deal with the E.U. regarding arrangements after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, the move also threatens to derail negotiations on the deal. But perhaps the biggest issue is the fact that the U.K. is openly willing to break commitments made under international law. Former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair have both condemned the action as “irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice,” stating that “it questions the very integrity of our nation.”
When Parliament ratified the agreement in January it was clear that the U.K. had agreed to there being a de facto customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. To then introduce legislation that violates this agreement has serious consequences for the U.K.’s international reputation, as it shows the world that it cannot be held to its word. That is particularly damaging at a time when the U.K. is trying to negotiate trade agreements with the E.U., the U.S. and others. On a more fundamental level, it undermines the commitment to the rule of law that enables the international system to function. What do tyrants have to fear about arresting or murdering citizens that oppose them, as has happened recently in Belarus, Bolivia and Turkey, when the supposed “leader of the free world” seems willing to do the same? How can the U.K. possibly call for states to abide by non-proliferation, peace, or disarmament agreements if it does not uphold international law itself?
Trumps comments regarding how he would “put down” protestors, as well as his heavy-handed response to Black Lives Matter protests, which has seen unmarked federal agents being deployed to overwhelmingly peaceful protests, are deeply concerning. The U.K.’s intransigence regarding international law would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Yet despite the harm these actions are causing in the present, through their degradation of the rules of domestic politics and the international system, their greatest consequences may be yet to be felt.
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