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International law - the challenges facing future legislation

Tuesday 13 July 2010
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As changing pressures alter the complexion of the planet, Giles Crosse peers into the murky world of international law, and the challenges facing future legislation.

Law. It’s a challenging area at the best of times. But as tomorrow’s developments push the need for more stringent and effective law making, what new legal systems might encourage better justice and equity? Are present laws sufficiently strong? And who has the right to make law?




It doesn’t take a genius to work out that over the next few decades, all kinds of laws, both domestic and international, are going to come under increasing pressure. Climate change is going to cause scarcity for resources, both in terms of the food we eat and the places in which we live. This in turn has knock on effects including migration and conflict.

As changing pressures alter the complexion of the planet, Giles Crosse peers into the murky world of international law, and the challenges facing future legislation.

Law. It’s a challenging area at the best of times. But as tomorrow’s developments push the need for more stringent and effective law making, what new legal systems might encourage better justice and equity? Are present laws sufficiently strong? And who has the right to make law?

How we manage these issues will depend largely on the efficiency and effectiveness of the laws we use to judge when individuals, societies or even governments are out of line. The problem is that even now existing pressures have proven that while laws may be in place, they don’t necessarily always do the job.

International terrorism and human rights abuses have long been one of the trickiest areas to control. Aforementioned pressures will only increase potential conflict zones and scope for both terrorism and human rights atrocities. Worst case scenarios might even imagine genocide where populations fight for diminishing resources. And it’s in these cases that law finds it toughest to get things done.

Law in action

 “Our focus is on helping torture survivors and so of course we have a strong interest in the enquiry and the record of the UK government on counter terrorism, and to ensure that they meet their anti terror and anti-torture obligations,” explains Kevin Laue. He’s Legal Advisor to Redress, an international non-profit legal and human rights organisation seeking to help torture survivors.

“I think that on balance there is no fundamental problem with the UK checks and balances to protect human rights,” he continues. “Torture is a crime under UK and international law, there is universal jurisdiction for this type of crime, so the perpetrator of such a crime anywhere in the world can be tried in the UK for torture or other gross human rights abuses such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“ The UK is signed up to the EU Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act has been in place since 2000, and all of this can be enforced in the courts, there is an independent judiciary, and the right basic legal mechanisms are there.”

So far, so good. But the point remains that in spite of the existence of all the correct requirements, in many cases global law isn’t working. It’s this that will need to change to prepare us for when we need robust laws even more urgently.

“But the fact remains that both in the UK and globally we require proper enforcement and accountability for these laws to work properly,” says Laue. “I need to emphasise that the counter terrorism environment in particular throws up the role of the security services and the potential problems therein.

“The truth is this whole scenario has poisoned things to a significant extent and it needs curing. It is really a political thing more than a legal thing in many ways, whilst it is of course true that governments should be beholden to laws and if the right law is in place in theory there should be no problem. 

“But political will has been lacking to deal with these issues and the security services abroad, and the military in Iraq or Afghanistan, have at times been sailing close to the wind, and worse.

“When military conflicts and secret intelligence and counter terrorism become involved there is a close link between the law and politics and international relations. If there is torture by UK soldiers in Basra then a UK enquiry is required, but often it can take a political decision to actually make this happen.”

And of course the worrying risk is that as international relations become more pressurised by things like peak oil, and governments’ commitments to provide power and resources to their citizens become strained, so the willingness to make such decisions might diminish.

Complex equation

 “Also there is a complexity to this,” argues Laue. “For example there has been a recent challenge to the arrangement between the UK and Afghanistan to hand over captured insurgents in Afghanistan - they shouldn’t be handed over in scenarios whereby they might be at risk of torture under UK and international law, this is another area of concern.”

Laue says this is where the role of the UK intelligence services in Guantanamo Bay or Pakistan also needs transparency, driven by government as it becomes a foreign policy issue. 

“Of course everything is still accountable under the British democracy and accountable to Parliament, and the courts are there to adjudicate. The point is that the obligation is there, if evidence is sufficient, to investigate any torture or human rights abuses under UK, EU human rights and international law.

“But there has been evidence of breaches of this and this is where there has been a failure. The role for example of people being rendered  through UK airspace, including Diego Garcia, this all really requires proper investigation by the UK authorities, and allegations of ill treatment in Iraq remain unresolved. “

Of course, it’s not necessarily fair to compare today’s justice failures in Iraq or Afghanistan to potential future scenarios. But the point remains that globalisation, climate change and other changes will just make the need for tough law even more potent.

‘On Monday, 8 March, the Court of Appeal will begin hearing the appeal of seven UK residents in a civil claim for damages against the British government for alleged complicity in their torture overseas,’ explains Justice, an independent legal human right organisation. ‘The appellants include Moazzem Begg, former detainee in Guantanamo, and Binyam Mohamed.

‘The appeal concerns a preliminary ruling of the High Court that the government could, in principle, rely on a ‘closed defence’ and secret evidence in defending the claim. This would mean that, rather than a hearing in open court, the government would be able to rely on secret evidence in closed hearings.’

Imagine if similar systems were applied to things like claims for land, or rulings on potential oil drillings or options for developing renewable power. We might suddenly be faced with scenarios where the law that dictates the future direction of the planet is being usurped by governments fixated only on domestic needs, catalysing competition and anger over how we manage future problems.

The plain truth of the matter is, perhaps somehow we need to embed a degree of transparency in global law now, to shield us from the greater pressures it is likely to face in coming years.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet today!

Read more articles with reference to Sustainable Law, Conflict and Human Rights or sign up to our newsletter for twice monthly news. 

Resources:

Devolution and Human Rights 
The Future of the Rule of Law A JUSTICE Fu t u r e s paper 
Globalisation the Nation-State and Private Actors: Rethinking Public – Private Cooperation in Shaping Law and Governance 
Oxford research Group: An uncertain future - Law Enforcement, National Security and Climate Change

 

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