‘Uphold international law’? Nope, it’s been cut from UK ministers’ rulebook

© Dan Kitwood
Human rights campaigners have filed a legal challenge against Downing Street after Prime Minister David Cameron edited the ministerial code to remove the government’s obligation to uphold international law.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) are expected to argue the change in ministerial code could alter decisions about the use of military force abroad.

Before being changed, the code, which was issued in 2010, said there was an “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.

The new version, released last October, removed mention of international law and simply says there is an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life.”

GCHR is funding its case against the government through a crowdfunding campaign.

Lawyers representing the organization said the change could affect the important decisions made by ministers about joining international conflicts, as well as the impact of international court rulings on British law and Britain’s obligations to uphold human rights law.

GCHR advisor board member Melanie Gingell said the government’s rewriting of the code weakens ministers’ accountability to parliament.

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.

Removing international law from the code weakens ministers’ accountability to parliament and clearly signals a watering down of the UK’s respect for human rights law. I hope the court will recognize the profound consequences of removing just 13 words from ministers’ duties.”

Leading figures in the legal field have condemned the move, with former attorney general Dominic Grieve accusing Downing Street of sending out a “very bad signal.

Former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC said the edit appears to be deliberate.

It is difficult to believe that this change is inadvertent. If it’s deliberate, it appears to advocate a conscious loosening of ministerial respect for the rule of law and the UK’s international treaty obligations, including weakening responsibility for the quality of justice here at home.