Expert View

More global influence outside EU? Just look at ICJ decision

by David Hannay | 22.11.2017

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

From the beginning of 2018 Britain will no longer have a judge on the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the senior international tribunal on which it has had a place ever since the UN was set up after the Second World War. An unwritten convention that the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council should each have a judge has been challenged and overturned, to our detriment.

Well, you might say, this is a development which falls into the “small earthquake in Chile, few casualties” category. And, up to a point, that is correct. The ICJ will continue to function perfectly well. The UK will also continue to accept its compulsory jurisdiction, the only one of the five permanent members to do so. That does mean, of course, that we will be subject to the rulings of an international court with foreign judges. Sound familiar?

But in the world of international diplomacy, where perceptions and symbolic shifts often matter as much as hard facts, it is not as simple or as untroubling as that.

Winning elections at the UN is a fraught business. Those elections are an odd mixture of a global beauty contest, a reflection of the international trepidation index (that is to say how much countries fear offending the country they are voting against), and of the sheer diplomatic elbow grease put into lobbying in New York and in capitals around the world.

Clearly Britain fell short on this occasion. I doubt if we skimped on the hard work of our diplomats. But there is scant evidence that a prime minister distracted by the shenanigans in her cabinet and her party over Brexit, or a foreign secretary who is widely considered to be a laughing stock while not being very funny, played a useful role.

We have come a long way since the ICJ election in 1995 when Rosalyn Higgins won a seat by one of the largest majorities recorded and went on to become President of the ICJ. The direction of travel has been downward.

Nor is this the first straw in the wind at the UN to suggest our international influence and standing is in retreat. Earlier this year the UN General Assembly decided, over the UK’s strenuous objections, to refer to the ICJ the case of the Chagos islanders, who were displaced from Britain’s Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia when it was turned into a massive US military base.

To what extent are these developments Brexit-related, unintended consequences of last year’s referendum result? Hard to say. But one thing is clear beyond doubt. Brexiters’ claims that ridding ourselves of the incubus of EU membership would open the way to increased international influence are proving to be totally unfounded.

The government never stops reminding us that we remain a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, a member of the Commonwealth, of NATO, and of countless other international organisations. But these are not silver trophies on the mantelpiece to be admired by visitors. Their importance depends on whether we can put them to good use to enhance our future influence on world events. And, so far, we do not seem to be doing very well at that.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “More global influence outside EU? Just look at ICJ decision”

  • We’ll have to start getting used to these national humiliations as brexit chickens start coming home to roost. If we take into account the ICJ’S predecessor, the PCIJ (Permanent Court of International Justice), which became operational in 1922, it will be 95 years that the World Court has had a British judge. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the brexiteers start campaigning to denounce the UK’s acceptance of the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction, along with withdrawing from the Council of Europe.