Amal Clooney quits as UK Special Envoy over Brexit bill

18 September 2020, 15:35 | Updated: 18 September 2020, 18:30

File photo: Amal Clooney during the meeting on ISIS at the United Nations headquarters in New York City
File photo: Amal Clooney during the meeting on ISIS at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Amal Clooney has quit as a UK Special Envoy over the Government's plans to break international law with the Internal Market Bill.

The human rights lawyer submitted her resignation on Friday amid controversy over the Brexit bill, which the Government admitted would "breach international law."

She said she was "disappointed" to stand down as a Special Envoy on Media Freedom but said it was "untenable" for her to "urge other states to respect and enforce international obligations while the UK declares that it does not intend to do so itself."

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Ms Clooney, a British-Lebanese barrister, was originally appointed to the role of special envoy by the then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2019.

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Ms Clooney wrote: "When the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (as it then was) asked me to serve as Special Envoy on Media Freedom, the role was described as one in which I would assist the UK in championing the right to a free press around the world.

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"My role was intended to help promote action that governments could take to ensure that existing international obligations relating to media freedom are enforced in accordance with international law.

"I accepted the role because I believe in the importance of the cause, and appreciate the significant role that the UK has played and can continue to play in promoting the international legal order.

"In these circumstances I have been dismayed to learn that the Government intends to pass legislation - the Internal Market Bill - which would, by the Government's own admission, 'break international law' if enacted.

"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 violation of international law would be '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.

"Out of respect for the professional working relationship I have developed with you and your senior colleagues working on human rights, I deferred writing this letter until I had had a chance to discuss this matter with you directly."

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But having now done so and received no assurance that any change of position is imminent, I have no alternative but to resign from my position."

Mrs Clooney said she was "disappointed" to have to resign 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.

"As the President of the Bar Council of England and Wales has affirmed, undermining the rule of law that 'this country is built on ... will fatally puncture people's faith in our justice system'.

"And it threatens to embolden autocratic regimes that violate international law with devastating consequences all over the world."

Her decision to quit follows the resignations of two other senior lawyers - the advocate general for Scotland, Lord Keen of Elie, and the head of the Government Legal Department Sir Jonathan Jones.

It will add to the pressure on Boris Johnson who has been facing calls to drop measures in the UK Internal Market Bill enabling ministers to override provisions in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson appeared to have headed off a looming Commons revolt through a deal with Tory rebels in which he agreed there would have to be a vote by MPs before ministers could activate the powers.

However, it is not clear whether the move will be enough to placate all the critics of the Bill who voiced deep concern that the Government would even consider going back on its international treaty obligations.

Former Conservative party leader Lord Howard of Lympne has already said the change "isn't enough" for him.

Even if the Bill gets through the Commons unscathed next week, there are likely to be further attempts to amend the legislation when it gets to the House of Lords.

For Labour, shadow media minister Chris Matheson said: "It is humiliating that the UK's special envoy on media freedom has felt unable to continue in her role.

"This shows that by threatening to break international law instead of getting Brexit done as we were promised, the Government is trashing the UK's reputation around the world."

A Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office spokesman said: "We'd like to thank Amal Clooney for all her work as Special Envoy to defend journalists and promote media freedom around the world."