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The Modern Law of Self-Defence

Published on January 11, 2017        Author: 
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Text of the speech delivered this evening by United Kingdom’s Attorney-General, the Rt Hon. Jeremy Wright QC MP, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London on “The Modern Law of Self-Defence”:

Introduction

Thank you to the International Institute for Strategic Studies for hosting us today.

The Institute’s Mission Statement sets out its aim to promote ‘the development of sound policies that further global peace and security, and maintain civilised international relations.’

For my part, I welcome the opportunity to speak to you on an international question which is one of the most serious any government can face – when is it lawful for a state to use force – always a last resort and only where it is necessary.

Today I want to talk specifically about when it is lawful to use force in self-defence – whether of the UK, or of our allies. And I want to set out, in greater detail than the Government has before, how the UK applies the long-standing rules of international law on self-defence to our need to defend ourselves against new and evolving types of threats from non-state actors.

I don’t need to remind this audience that the UK is a world leader in promoting, defending and shaping international law. In the 19th Century as modern international law was being formed, it was the UK (in 1807) that helped outlaw and end the international slave trade and then slavery itself.[1] It was diplomatic correspondence between the United Kingdom and the United States which followed the Caroline Incident of 1837 that defined the parameters of the concept of imminence, as it was understood at that time and to which I will return.[2] It was the UK, with the US, which agreed to international arbitration as a means for the settlement of international disputes in the Jay Treaty of 1795.[3]  Our commitment to defending and shaping international law is undimmed since then. The UK was a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations, as well as an original signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact[4], Ottawa Treaty[5] and the Rome Statute.[6] And we are one of the biggest contributors of funding to the International Criminal Court.[7] We are also the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that recognises the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice[8], and we remain one of the largest contributing states to the International Committee of the Red Cross[9], supporting it in its endeavours to promote and strengthen international humanitarian law.

As the latest in a long line of Attorneys General, I follow in a tradition of advocating, celebrating and participating in a rules-based international order. On several occasions in its history, the United Kingdom has subjected itself voluntarily to the jurisdiction of various international tribunals. My predecessors and I have appeared before a variety of international tribunals on behalf of the UK. And while we do not win every point in every case, I believe this personal investment demonstrates the commitment to international law of those who have done my job.

Of course, consistent with our commitment to that rules-based international order, the UK may on occasion decide to withdraw from a particular international agreement. You may have noticed that the British public has asked us to do so recently, with regard to one such set of agreements. The government is acting on that mandate, through the process of withdrawal from the European Union, and is doing so in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union – in other words, in a manner fully compliant with international law. That is the nature of the country we are, and the nature of our commitment to the Rule of Law.

There are few more fundamental rules of international law than the prohibition of the use of force and the right of self-defence, defined in customary international law and codified in important respects in the UN Charter.[10]

The UK should and will only use armed force, and will only act in self-defence, where it is consistent with international law to do so. International law sets the framework for any action taken by Sovereign States overseas, and the UK acts in accordance with it.

Today, I want to spell out how we ensure that we do so. Read the rest of this entry…