Boris Johnson delivers his resignation speech (photo: Kyle Heller/No 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Margaret Owen on the serial lawbreaking of the Johnson government

The shaming of Boris Johnson’s government, and our associated loss of trust on the global stage, has reached its tipping point. The resignation of Lord Geidt, his ethics advisor, led to growing demands for Johnson’s resignation on the backbenches, a slew of Cabinet resignations and, eventually, to the belated departure of the prime minister himself.

Obligations under international treaties are part of international law. But Johnson has little respect for the law or lawyers. Defenders of those deprived of their rights enshrined in statutes and international treaties are branded  “lefty lawyers”. He even labelled our Supreme Court judges “enemies of the people”. Some of these breaches are well known to the public; others, less so. The list is long, but here’s a few examples.

On 24th September 2019, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Johnson’s prorogation was both justiciable and unlawful, and therefore null and of no effect. His advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament was “outside the powers of the prime minister”. He was motivated by a desire to suspend Parliament sitting until the Queen’s speech would deliver his planned legislative agenda for a hard Brexit. 

Since then, there has been a constant stream of lies – about Partygate, who paid for the decoration of the Downing Street flat, Spanish holidays, cash for peerages, and, still unresolved, his relationship with the American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, and whether there were conflicts of interest when she received funding and accompanied Johnson on trade trips. Soon Johnson must face questioning by the parliamentary Privileges Committee.

When governments ratify international treaties, the articles in them become part of international law. They are legally binding despite there being no centralised governance to enforce them. If a country flouts international law, the courts can demand that it immediately cease its illegal act, and make reparations to those individuals damaged by their lawbreaking. The June 14th eleventh-hour interim judgement of the ECHR stopped the ill-fated Rwanda-bound plane carrying desperate suicidal asylum seekers who sought safety here. However, Johnson’s response to being found to be in breach of such laws is to renounce our treaty obligations, whatever their source. 

We have seen the ripping up of the Northern Ireland protocol, thus risking a European trade war and exposing this country to prosecution for its breaches by the International Court of Justice. Johnson signed the Brexit deal in 2019, agreeing customs checks on goods travelling between the UK and Northern Ireland, creating an EU border in the Irish Sea. We will also breach the Good Friday Agreement, inciting a return to the Troubles that plagued the region for decades.

Johnson and Priti Patel have blatantly breached the articles of the 1951 Refugee Convention – as well as the European Charter of Human Rights and several other UN conventions, such as those on Political and Civil Rights (UNPCR), Economic and Social Rights (UNESR), the Prevention of Torture (CAT) and Children’s Rights (UNCRC) – with their policies on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The unlawful, cruel, unworkable, and hugely costly plan to deport to Rwanda traumatised, often tortured, asylum seekers has been deplored internationally, and specifically by authorities such as the Refugee Council and UNHCR.  

Refugees should not be treated as criminals simply because of the means they used to arrive on our shores. The IRCs (immigration removal centres) used to house these vulnerable people are unlawful and should be closed down. Less well-known to the general public is the opening of yet another IRC in County Durham intended to house some 84 deeply traumatised women asylum seekers. Many of these women have been victims of rape, modern slavery and trafficking, and have fled extreme violence, conflict zones and harmful misogynist traditional practices.

Further comes Government indifference and breach of the CEDAW (UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). This groundbreaking convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 after much lobbying by women’s NGOs. Women must have, for example, equal rights to healthcare, family planning, education, land ownership, freedom to marry and access to justice. The UK ratified the CEDAW in 1986, but has retained reservations on such issues as immigration and pensions, which the CEDAW Committee (of 26) has ruled are incompatible with the spirit of the treaty.

To the anger of many women’s NGOs here, including those in the devolved regions, Johnson and his Cabinet have not only shown utter indifference to this Women’s Convention, and therefore to its obligations (not legal but moral) under the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, but also to successive annual Agreed Conclusions of the UN CSW (Commission on the Status of Women).

Earlier this year, before the start of the 66th CSW, the Government affirmed in meetings with UK women’s NGOs that it would not comply with any of the recommendations made by the CEDAW, and therefore would not be domesticating the convention’s articles.

The coalition of Tories and Lib Dems in 2010 abolished the world-renowned Women’s National Commission. The CEDAW asked HMG to fill the gap so that we women can have restored to us an effective “institutional mechanism for women”, as laid down in the Beijing Platform for Action and the CSW Agreed Conclusions. This has been refused.

We now learn that Johnson plans to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act. We are living in a world where a rules-based order is no longer respected. When this government sells arms to autocratic, misogynist and racist regimes that have no regard for human rights, including women’s rights, we breach the Arms Treaty. Women and children bear the brunt disproportionately. My organisation, Widows For Peace Through Democracy, tries to address some of these privations and violations. The British public must not allow this destruction of the values we hold dear to continue.

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