Legal Challenge for Downing Street Over International Legal Obligations

A legal challenge has been launched against Downing Street over the removal of a number of key words from the UK’s ministerial code. The edits to the document seem to remove the obligation placed on the government to uphold its responsibilities under international law.

The changes, made last year, removed 13 words in total from the code of conduct. This amounted to the removal of sections of the text relating to the UK government’s duty to fulfil the country’s various obligations under international law. The previous form of the code was put in place in 2010, and referred to the “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life.”

In October, however, the government released a new version of the code, in which this passage has been cut down. It now simply states that there is an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life,” with no mention of international law or obligations under treaties.

The changes drew concern from a number of lawyers, who believe that the removal of those parts of the text which refer to international law could have significant consequences in a number of areas. For example, it could affect how the country responds to any rulings made in international courts that relate to the UK. It could also weaken the UK’s adherence to important areas of international law which are not also enshrined in British national law, such as various aspects of human rights law. Furthermore, the removal of the obligation to uphold international law and treaty obligations from the ministerial code could affect decisions about whether the UK should involve itself in military conflicts.

The legal challenge to the changes is being brought by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). GCHR is attempting to finance the challenge through a campaign on online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe. GCHR is an organisation that works primarily in the Middle East helping to protect those who campaign for human rights and are therefore in danger of retribution from authoritarian governments.

According to MCHR’s Melanie Gingell: “We cannot call these governments to account if at the same time western governments are diminishing their commitments to international law and the separation of powers.”

The removal of references to international law from the code also, Gingell contends, “weakens ministers’ accountability to parliament and clearly signals a watering down of the UK’s respect for human rights law.”

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