The Position of British Parties on International Law Issues

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As readers will know the UK will hold a general election on the 6th of May. This evening, as a part of a unprecedented three part series of debates, the leaders of the three main UK parties (Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) will hold a debate on foreign affairs. I thought it would be useful to highlight, brieftly, the position of those three parties on some issues of international law. The BBC website has a useful summary of the position of these parties on Europe and Foreign Affairs, which you can find here. However, some of the positions attributed to the parties by the BBC do not appear in their manifesto and don’ t seem to be on the parties website either. Unlike the position in the United States in recent years, and with the exception of their position on relations with the European Union, there is no radical difference between the parties on questions of foreign affairs. I don’t intend to say much on Europe, but it is worth pointing out, in brief, that the Conservatives hold the most sceptical position, including, for example, a commitment never to join the single european currency – the Euro; and amending UK law to ensure that any future transfers of powers to the EU must be approved by referendum. The Liberal Democrats , by contrast hold the most Euro friendly position (both with respect to the single currency and Europe more generally) with Labour being somewhere in the middle. On another matter related to Europe, the Conservatives have promised to replace the Human Rights Act (which incorporates the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law) with a UK Bill of Rights. I will leave it to others more knowledgeable about that issue to comment on it.

On general international law issues there is actually broad agreement among the parties on a range of issues. Let me start by pointing out the position of the parties on a number of international treaties – both exisiting treaties and those possible future treaties that the parties commit themselves to support. Labour and the Conservatives commit themselves in their manifesto to reform of the UN Security Council (which presumably means amendment of the UN Charter).The Conservatives are the most specific on this issue in their election manifesto. They pledge to “support permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council for Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and African representation.” The Labour Party manifesto is more general as they commit the party to “radical UN reform, including new membership of the Security Council, budgetary reform, and an overhaul of UN agencies”. However, there is more detail on Labour policy on Security Council on their website as they also pledge to “continue to support the candidatures of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil for permanent seats on an enlarged Council, and for permanent African representation.” The Liberal Democrats have nothing on this issue in their manifesto.

All three parties are committed to a binding international treaty on climate change though the Liberal Democrats supply a bit more detail by seeking a treaty that will limit the increase in global temperatures by 1.5 degrees celsius. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to an international treaty to control and regulate the arms trade. The UK is already committed to supporting the International Arms Trade Treaty and it is unlikely that the Conservatives will back away from this support.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have something to say in their manifesto on intervention in foreign countries to protect human rights. However it is difficult to work out precisely what their positions are. This difficulty arises not just because of the ambiguity on the part of these Parties but because the very concepts they promise to support are not clear as a matter of international law.  Labour has pledged to “work to build an international consensus on ‘responsibility to protect’, while supporting the International Criminal Court in bringing previously untouchable criminals to justice.” The Conservatives state that they “will support humanitarian intervention when it is practical and necessary, while working with other countries to prevent conflict arising.” But the question is what does “responsiblity to protect” mean? Is it intended to refer to military intervention? If so, does it mean military intervention through the Security Council only? Also when the Conservatives speak of humanitarian intervention do they mean intervention through the Security Council only? The position of the UK over the past two decades is to support a right of unilateral humanitarian intervention (i.e without Security Council approval). So it may be that all that Conservaties and Labour are doing is to reiterate this policy. The Liberal Democrats have nothing on this in their manifesto and on their website (at least that I can find) but  their policy (as stated on the BBC website referred to above)  is a restatement of existing UK policy: the Lib Dems will “support the right of nations to intervene if foreign governments engage in large-scale violations of human rights, but force should only be used as a last resort and be authorised by the UN Security Council, in all but exceptional circumstances.”

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Charles says

April 22, 2010

Dapo: I would add that Prof. Bill Schabas pointed out the other day that Labour has endorsed the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative's proposed draft Convention on Crimes Against Humanity.

The statement of support is found at page 10.5 of the party's Programme

Dapo Akande says

April 22, 2010


Many thanks for pointing this out. I intended to mention it when planning my post but just forgot to do so when writing it. The relevant language in the labour manifesto is as follows
"We will advocate a new international convention to enable the prosecution of perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity."
There is support here for a new convention on crimes against humanity but the reference to genocide is quite curious. We already have a convention on genocide. Is Labour proposing a new convention on genocide. If so, what would it say and how would it differ from the existing convention. These questions are unanswered in the Labour manifesto.

Nick Donovan says

May 10, 2010

Dear Charles, dear Dapo,

I was the one pushing for the inclusion of reference to the specialist CAH treaty in the Labour manifesto. The reference to genocide surprised me too - I'm certain it's a rhetorical flourish rather than, say, an optional protocol to the genocide convention on, say, UJ.

Best, Nick