Comment | Whether on Scotland or Palestine, the UK government’s selective use of legal advice must stop

Last week, the UK government hailed Professor James Crawford's legal advice on Scottish independence. So why, asks Chris Doyle, does it continue to ignore his advice on Israeli settlement trade?

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Monday, February 18, 2013 17:02 - 0 Comments

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Ten years ago there was huge controversy when the Blair government refused to publish the Attorney General’s legal opinion on whether an attack on Iraq was legal.  Blair insisted that this was confidential. His critics said that this showed a lack of transparent government. Two years later the government was forced to publish it. This issue dominated huge sections of the Chilcot inquiry into the war on Iraq. The government maintained that they were upholding a cardinal principle that such advice should not be revealed.

Yet on 11 February 2013, David Cameron decided to release the independent legal advice it had requested regarding the legal issues surrounding possible Scottish independence. It was spun that this showed that any independent Scotland would have to renegotiate all its treaties and memberships of international organisations. The Secretary of state for Scotland, Michael Moore claimed that it was a “serious reality check” to the Scottish National Party’s claims that the path to independence would be obstacle-free. Of course, this suited Cameron et al to make the case for keeping the union. 

The co-author of this legal advice was Professor James Crawford of Cambridge University. He was the government’s new legal angel.

Crawford was the very same distinguished legal mind who had also published on behalf of the Trades Union Congress a legal opinion on the legality of trading with Israeli settlements. He determined that EU states “are fully within their rights to ban trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

This opinion was not quite so well received by Whitehall. The minister at the Foreign Office responsible for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, told Parliament in October 2012 that “the policy of successive UK Governments has been not to ban the import of settlement produce.”

British government officials have talked of their anger at Israeli settlement expansion and even the need for having incentives and disincentives to persuade the Netanyahu coalition to stop these Israeli colonies in the state of Palestine. It was the Blair government that had opposed the move by the United Nations General Assembly to seek a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice on the ‘Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the occupied Palestinian Territory.’ The highest legal body in the United Nations determined that the wall and its infrastructure was illegal and confirmed that the settlements were all grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Legal opinions are meant to be independent expert advice. Politicians find it tough to challenge legal expertise, so if it is unfavourable, it is best to keep it secret. Yet, is it right that governments can choose which to publish, which to keep private and even which to blatantly ignore? It is the taxpayer after all who has to foot the bill for them. The full Iraq war legal opinion was not even shown to the entire cabinet.

Apparently it would not be helpful to demonstrate conclusively that Israel was in violation of international law. Essentially the government acknowledges that the route of the wall was illegal but did not wish to do anything about it. Settlement products are proceeds of crime originating from businesses and farms on stolen land. 

The common thread of all these issues is that the British government would be far better advised to pay more attention to adhering to international law than ignoring it, and this should apply to our allies as well.  

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Chris Doyle

Chris Doyle is the director of the council for Arab-British understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter university.

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