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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy stock pics Netanyahu, Putin and Trump.

Bobby McDonagh The Rule of Law matters more than ever when the world is imploding

The former ambassador says that law and order breakdowns in many parts of the world demonstrate how important the rule of law is.

IT CAN BE hard to make sense of the disparate and seemingly disconnected challenges that afflict our increasingly troubled world. However, there is one common thread that links them all: Gaza, Ukraine, Trump, Braverman and the thuggish rioters in Dublin on Thursday evening.

The importance of the rule of law. Respect for the law is necessary both for the preservation of democracies and for peaceful relations between nations. Domestic law and international law are not academic niceties or optional extras.

riot dublin 25_90693632 Rolling News Hundreds of people riot on O'Connell Street and surrounding areas on Thursday. Rolling News

They are a vital part of the infrastructure of human civilisation. Without the law, then might will prevail over right. The Lord of the Flies comes into his own, as we saw briefly in O’Connell Street this week.

Why the law matters

Today, the most urgent challenge to international legality arises in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The International Criminal Court (ICC) will one day reach a judgement on the behaviour of both sides. In the meanwhile, however, hostages are being held in horrifying captivity and innocent civilians are being killed in shocking numbers.

For the moment, no court can hold anyone to account. Neither side acknowledges that it is doing anything wrong. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for whom civilisation is a hoax and legality a meaningless inconvenience, will continue to justify their nihilism. Israel will continue to deny the self-evidently disproportionate nature of its response and to gloss over the manifestly illegal nature of its expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories.

It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that calls for international law to be respected are stepped up. For the moment, the court of public opinion is the only one to which we can appeal.

International law is also central to the Russia Ukraine conflict. The massacres at Bucha and elsewhere, the relentless Russian attacks on civilian and infrastructural targets – 10,000 Ukrainian civilians have now been killed – and the deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia have compounded Putin’s war of aggression.

While Putin will never see the inside of a prison cell, the ICC investigation and its issuing of arrest warrants represent a valuable signal. Ongoing calls for respect for international law are important in this case also. In addition to underlining an essential principle, they contribute to shaping world opinion.

International conventions and treaties are relevant to almost every conflict and dispute between states. Close to home, former Prime Minister Johnson’s explicitly stated intention to break international law, by reneging on the legally binding Northern Ireland Protocol, was on a far less dramatic scale than the more brutal examples cited. However, it was similarly important in terms of principle. If respect for international law becomes optional, it is no longer the law.

Lost leadership

As regards the importance of respect for the rule of domestic law, it is the cornerstone of every democracy. Under autocratic regimes, individuals can be arbitrarily imprisoned for political reasons or at the whim of despots. A democracy without the law ceases to be a democracy.

One of the most flagrant challenges to the rule of law in a democracy continues to be posed in the US by former President Donald Trump. Much media focus has been on whether Trump’s political future will be helped or hindered by the numerous criminal charges he faces. However, his legal travails should not be seen primarily through the prism of such political calculation.

The more profound question is whether US democracy itself could survive the assault by a second Trump Presidency on the rule of law.

The charges he faces regarding his attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election make entirely explicit the link between democracy and the rule of law.

Screenshot 2023-11-24 at 10.31.37 Alamy stock pics Netanyahu, Putin and Trump. Alamy stock pics

The outcome of the various cases Trump faces lies, as it should, in the hands of US courts. What is existentially important for US democracy is that the law be seen to apply, notwithstanding political intimidation or pleading.

In many other countries today, it is disturbingly clear that the preservation of democracy requires the rule of law, including the independence of the judiciary, to be upheld.

A striking example was in Israel, even before the present conflict. Prime Minister Netanyahu put forward a proposal to eviscerate the Israeli courts, including a provision that would allow a simple majority in parliament to override court decisions. It is not surprising that Israelis demonstrated in huge numbers to protect their democracy which is challenged not just by Hamas but by their own Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Orban in Hungary is another leader intent on undermining his country’s democracy, including by exerting Government control over the courts. His behaviour poses an ongoing challenge to the European Union as a whole.

A post-Brexit Britain

It has been extraordinary to witness recently some of the reaction in Britain to the UK Supreme Court’s decision preventing the sending of asylum seekers to Rwanda. Suella Braverman, until very recently the Home Secretary, and Lee Anderson, a Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, were amongst those who, astonishingly, advocated simply bypassing or even ignoring the judgement of Britain’s highest court.

Fortunately, even if there remains a degree of ambiguity about the UK’s continued attachment to important legally binding international conventions, British democracy, including necessarily respect for the courts, seems vastly more robust than during the disgraceful Johnson years.

Ireland, for our part, can be proud that our courts, which guarantee our democracy and our individual rights, remain strong and independent.

The mindless, profoundly anti-Irish, rioters who burned vehicles and indulged in recreational looting in Dublin on Thursday evening represent a serious challenge. However, the overwhelming majority of the public support the rule of law and it will prevail.

Our Supreme Court has recently been considering intelligent and respectful arguments for and against the Judicial Appointments Bill referred to it by the President. It is reassuring to know that, whatever the outcome of the Court’s consideration, its judgement will be accepted; and that the rule of law will continue to be valued and respected in Ireland by the Government, in parliament and by the public.

Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy. He is an executive coach and commentator on subjects around EU and Brexit.