The UK Attorney-General on the Modern Law of Self-Defence

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Later today, the United Kingdom’s Attorney-General, the Rt Hon. Jeremy Wright QC MP will deliver a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London, on “The Modern Law of Self-Defence”. The speech will be significant as the advert indicates that the Attorney General will “set out the UK’s position on the application of international law on self-defence, in particular the concept of ‘imminence’ in the context of the ongoing and developing threat that we face from non-state-actor terrorist groups.”

As readers will likely know from the Chilcott Inquiry relating to the war in Iraq, as well as developments regarding the UK’s use of force in Libya and Syria, the UK Attorney-General has the ultimate responsibility for advising the government on the legality, under international law, of the use of force. It has also become standard practice since the war in Iraq for a summary of the Attorney-General’s advice to be presented to Parliament before Parliament votes on whether to authorise the use of force (a vote which is now required by constitutional convention).

I am happy to report that the text of the speech will be posted on this blog as soon as the AG has finished delivery of the speech at 6pm UK time. In addition, over the coming days there will be discussion on EJIL:Talk! of the issues raised by the speech, with a number of contributors weighing on the significance of the points made by the AG. 


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Jordan J Paust says

January 11, 2017

I hope he does not suggest that UN article 51 allows use of force when there is merely an "imminent" or "developing" threat -- either of which is not a present "threat," much less an "armed attack." If he uses the phrase "imminent attack" one can address claims regarding anticipatory self-defense.

Jordan J Paust says

January 11, 2017

Well, he said imminent attack and claimed that anticipatory self-defense is permissible under a misreading of Article 51. Whatever had been the "inherent" right, it was expressly limited by Article 51, "if an armed attack occurs."
Further, there was no mention of "anticipatory" during the Caroline debate and the constant reference was to self-defense against ongoing NSA armed attacks. The attacks were occurring!
Clearly the UK has been making claims to change CIL and, moreover, to not be bound by the express language in adticle 51.

Mary Ellen O'Connell says

January 11, 2017

Jordan is right: the core requirement of UNC Article 51 is armed attack. The Attorney General's speech, however, is not so much about the law as it is as the law he wants. He wants new law to justify using military force against terrorists.

But what of the really new thing? The new era of world leadership: Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, and those to come?

During the Cold War the U.S. and Soviet Union were careful not to distort the law of self-defence out of concern the other superpower would use the distortion for its own purposes--facts were often distorted, not the law.

The safeguard of accurate interpretation of the law is one I urge in this very new, very dangerous time.