David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, has said that Labour would put the rule of law “at the centre of Britain’s foreign policy” and “restore Britain’s reputation as a country that keeps its word”.
In a speech to the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law today (10 July) he set out new policies that would define Labour’s approach to foreign policy in government. First, Labour would update the ministerial code to ensure ministers comply with international and treaty obligations and “avoid democratic backsliding”. Second, Lammy promised that Labour would stand up for human rights and “challenge impunity” across the world, supporting punishment for international crimes and partnering with “like-minded countries”. Third, Labour would put the UK “at the forefront” of international political debates, such as on net zero and AI. Fourth, Labour would support the establishment of an international anti-corruption court.
Defiance of international obligations has been a key feature of Tory Brexiteers in recent years. The government has in general referred to certain international obligations only when they hamper domestic policy, presenting them as obstructions to be removed or ignored. The declaration that internal markets legislation regarding trading arrangements for Northern Ireland would break international law in a “specific and limited way” was one example, as is the Illegal Migration Bill.
Rishi Sunak has been intensifying threats to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and defy international law to deport migrants to Rwanda. The Prime Minister has declared that the government would press forward with its deportation plan, despite the Court of Appeal ruling it unlawful because Rwanda could not be considered a safe third country. Sunak said he would appeal against the decision to the Supreme Court. Today, Lammy pointed to these incidents as grave signals “to the world” that the UK was prepared to disavow its legal obligations, which he claimed had “besmirched” Britain’s reputation abroad.
Labour is prepared to draw a line in the sand, it seems. Lammy highlighted the inconsistency of the government’s approach to international law with Sunak’s pledge to restore accountability, transparency and integrity to government. He pledged to update the ministerial code to reinstate the duty of ministers to “comply with international law and the treaty obligations Britain has signed up to”, saying that “David Cameron’s decision to remove it in 2015 showed contempt, and it foreshadowed the reckless abandonment of this principle by his successor”.
Where the Conservatives have attempted to present Starmer’s legal background as weakness, Labour feels confident in leaning into these credentials to differentiate themselves from the rule-breaking and sleaze that have defined the last few years of Conservative government. Lammy pointed to Keir Starmer’s experience as a human rights lawyer as evidence of his ability to stand up to Vladmir Putin, the Russian president, and take a lead on the global stage. “He was a hugely respected defender of people’s rights before becoming Britain’s top prosecutor,” Lammy told the crowd, “holding those who break the law to account, defending victims, fighting terrorism and standing up for justice.”
Lammy also brought out a new attack line, spelling out how the government’s approach to international obligations is damaging the UK’s international standing and could even be hampering economic growth. He said that the government’s reputation for backsliding has “weakened our foreign policy, while strengthening that of our rivals. It has provided ammunition to countries such as Russia and China, who use allegations of hypocrisy as a tool in the UN”. He said that international law provided a framework for “international commerce to flourish”, which the UK must prioritise as we “rebuild the British economy after so many years of neglect”.
Today’s speech followed on from Lammy’s pledge to work towards improved relations with the EU. “Reconnecting Britain must start by reconnecting with our European neighbours,” he told the Trade Unlocked conference last month. Labour feels empowered to take a bolder position on Britain’s place in the world, sensing an appetite for increased collaboration and diplomacy in the face of significant global and domestic challenges. Today, Lammy took the government’s bulldozer approach to international diplomacy head on, explaining how ministers had “consistently” taken steps that “undermine international law”, and differentiating Labour as a future government that would prioritise the rule of law, collaboration and accountability.
[See also: Can Labour inspire hope?]