International law is a ‘political construct’ and breaking it is ‘routine’, Tory MP says

Theresa Villiers says ‘not unusual’ to ignore obligations

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 14 September 2020 16:50 BST
Villiers has served in the PM’s cabinet
Villiers has served in the PM’s cabinet (BBC)

A Conservative MP has defended the government's intention to break international law by claiming that countries violate it on a "routine" basis.

Theresa Villiers, one of Boris Johnson's former cabinet ministers, argued that it was "not unusual" for countries to disregard the rules and said such laws were merely a "set of political constructs".

MPs on Monday are debating the Internal Market Bill, which includes provisions that violate the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed by Boris Johnson last year.

Senior figures such as John Major, Theresa May and Tony Blair have warned against the plan, saying it will undermine the UK's standing in the world and make it harder to criticise other countries that violate international law.

But, taking to the TV studios to defend the government's actions, Ms Villiers argued: "The reality is that there are routine occasions where countries or indeed the EU are in violation of obligations under international law.

"You can see, for example, parliament's failure to vote to give prisoners votes. Arguably that is in violation of international law but I don't see people calling the United Kingdom a pariah state because it has failed to abide by that judgment in the European Court of Human Rights."

She told Sky News: "The reality is international law is a set of political constructs, which actually countries abide by or depart from in a number of circumstances – including the European Union itself. For example, it didn't apply WTO rules on Airbus. Arguably that's a violation of international law but the EU did it because the EU felt it was inappropriate to do that.

"It is not unusual for there to be disputes over international law, it is not unusual in certain limited circumstances for countries not to comply with all obligations under international law."

A new poll by YouGov shows the public is wary of the government's approach. Forty-seven per cent of voters say planning to break the law is unacceptable, compared to just 25 per cent who say it can be acceptable.

Young people are said to be particularly opposed to the government's plan, with just 6 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds in favour. Fifty-two per cent of Conservative voters support the move.

Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, said: "It seems that under Boris Johnson, accepting the rule of law has become optional. "

"For the sake of the future of our country, Ministers must stop playing fast and loose with the rule of law. Far from protecting the national interest, Boris Johnson's government seem content to see the UK's international reputation trashed."

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