Amal Clooney, the high-profile human rights lawyer, has resigned from her position as the UK’s special envoy on media freedom in protest at the government’s intention to breach international law through the internal market bill.
In a stinging denunciation of Boris Johnson’s threat to override Britain’s international treaty obligations in the EU withdrawal agreement, the barrister described the government’s actions as “lamentable”.
The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality, which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.
This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.
The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster "power grab", and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.
It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.
The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent".
The bill passed its first hurdle in parliament by 77 votes, despite a rebellion by some Tory MPs.
Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott
Her resignation letter, sent to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, on Friday says: “I have been dismayed to learn that the government intends to pass legislation – the internal market bill – which, if enacted, would, by the government’s own admission, ‘break international law’.
“I was also concerned to note the position taken by the government that although it is an ‘established principle of international law that a state is obliged to discharge its treaty obligations in good faith’, the UK’s ‘parliament is sovereign as a matter of domestic law and can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK’s treaty obligations’.
“Although the government has suggested that the intended violation of international law is ‘specific and limited’, it is lamentable for the UK to be speaking of its intention to violate an international treaty signed by the prime minister less than a year ago.”
Her resignation comes after after Richard Keen, the UK government’s law officer for Scotland, quit on Wednesday because of his opposition to the bill. A week earlier, the government’s chief lawyer, Jonathan Jones, stepped down as ministers prepared to publish the legislation.
Clooney said she had held back from standing down since the details of the internal market bill were revealed last week, but having “received no assurance that any change of position is imminent, I have no alternative but to resign from my position”.
She added: “I am disappointed to have to do so because I have always been proud of the UK’s reputation as a champion of the international legal order, and of the culture of fair play for which it is known. However, very sadly, it has now become untenable for me, as special envoy, to urge other states to respect and enforce international obligations while the UK declares that it does not intend to do so itself.”
Her letter, released through the International Bar Association in London, was supported by the independent High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom.
David Neuberger, the chair of that panel and former president of the UK supreme court, commented: “I agree with what Ms Clooney says in her letter of 18 September to the foreign secretary.
“I support her principled response to the shameful attitude of the UK government to its international treaty obligations in the internal market bill and in ministerial announcements that it is prepared to break international law.”
Lord Neuberger said Clooney’s role as an envoy was distinct from her position as deputy chair of the panel, which she would continue to hold.
He said: “Journalists who are persecuted, imprisoned and even murdered for their work deserve all the help that they can get, including through legal reforms by governments that follow the panel’s advice. It is in the interest of freedom of expression and the rule of law that they get such help.”
Lady Helena Kennedy QC, the director of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, which is secretariat to the panel, said: “I fully endorse the statements made in Ms Clooney’s letter of resignation and respect her decision to stand down as envoy while maintaining her role on the panel. Members of the panel are appointed on an unpaid basis as a result of their relevant expertise and the panel should complete its current mandate.”