Britain puts itself on the world's naughty step
Boris Johnson's government proclaims that it will break international law as the Brexit row resurfaces.
A feature of the world's leading democracies is that they support a rules-based international order. They believe there should be clear regulations about how nations behave towards each other - and in some cases, how they treat their own citizens - with an agreed form of enforcement and dispute settlement. Whether it's trading rules or treaty obligations, these are agreed and ratified and the good name of nations is shaped by a willingness to abide by these rules, however awkward they may sometimes be.
There are of course anomalies and exceptions. The United States will have nothing to do with the International Criminal Court, and indeed has imposed personal sanctions on ICC prosecutors pursuing allegations of abuses by American troops serving in Afghanistan. However obnoxious that may be, Washington at least has the virtue of consistency. The US has never agreed that the Court can have any oversight over the actions of American troops anywhere in the world.
There are, by the way, more than 120 member countries of the International Criminal Court, which was set up to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The select list of countries that either never signed up or have withdrawn includes - as well as the US - China, Israel, Russia, Sudan, Libya, Iraq and, sadly, India.
Britain's new breach of the rules is both of much less consequence - it doesn't touch on such grave issues as genocide or indeed anything to do with the ICC - but also more flagrant. Boris Johnson's government is threatening unilaterally to modify an international agreement it signed just a year ago. And it's on an issue of some consequence ... Brexit.
Most people in Britain had hoped they had heard the last of the Brexit issue. Boris Johnson won a commanding election victory last December on the slogan 'Get Brexit Done' and he duly presided over Britain's formal departure from the European Union the following month. So, all done and dusted then? Not a chance!
Britain has until the end of this year to negotiate a new trading arrangement with the EU, which is by far its main trading partner. Those talks have not been going well, to put it mildly, though with attention focused on the COVID pandemic, not many were paying much attention.
Now Johnson has declared that unless an agreement is completed in the next five weeks, Britain will give up on the talks and work on the basis that there will be a 'no deal' Brexit. "If we can't agree by then", the British prime minister declared this week, "I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on."
That's a fairly incendiary statement. And just to add a little bit more vim and vitriol, Johnson added that 'no deal' on trade would be a "good outcome" for Britain.
This could, of course, simply be part of the British government's negotiating strategy - an attempt to shock the EU into concessions. But don't bet on it. It does seem as though the government is preparing public opinion for a bumpy break with the current trading arrangements with Europe.
Even more incendiary is the revelation that the government intends to bring in legislation which unpicks some elements of the EU withdrawal agreement so tortuously negotiated last year. The British government says that if there is no trade deal, then legislation is required to spell out what happens in particular circumstances where the wording of the withdrawal agreement is opaque or imprecise. This relates particularly to by far the most sensitive aspect of the agreement - the land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland, no longer in the EU, and the Irish Republic, which remains part of the European Union.
However 'limited and specific' the circumstances, Britain is unilaterally 'clarifying' - in other words, changing - an agreement which has the force of an international treaty. Opposition parties have expressed outrage - some Conservative MPs have advised caution - the head of the government's legal service has resigned, apparently in protest - while in Brussels and the main EU capitals, there is incandescent fury that Britain seems to be reneging on commitments it entered into only months ago.
The proposed new bill will, a cabinet minister acknowledged in Parliament on Tuesday, 'break international law'. That's quite an admission. Once Britain proudly proclaimed its commitment to the rule of law - now it openly breaks the law when observance is inconvenient.
This government has a track record of U-turns and it may well be that Boris Johnson will think again about this explosive undermining of aspects of the withdrawal agreement. Even so, the British government has shown a disregard for the law and for treaty obligations which will gravely diminish its standing around the world.
Who will want do deals with a country which doesn't keep its word?