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International Court of Justice

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 1 March 2018

Foreign Affairs Committee

Select Committee Statement

Ian Murray will speak on this subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, the occupant of the Chair will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call him to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning. I call Ian Murray to make the statement on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

It is a great pleasure to make this statement, on behalf of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on our fourth report, which is on the International Court of Justice. Our Chair, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), and other members of the Committee are in Birmingham today and send their apologies for not being present—given that the Committee travels to some of the most challenging places in the world, little did they think that Birmingham would be the most challenging yet, considering the difficulties in getting there and back today.

In November last year the UK Government were unable to secure the re-election of the UK judge, Sir Christopher Greenwood, to the UN International Court of Justice. As a result, the UK is not represented on the ICJ for the first time since the Court’s creation in 1946. Sir Christopher was first elected to the ICJ in 2009 but, despite his impeccable record and what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told us was a long and extensive lobbying campaign, he lost to candidates from France, Somalia, India, Brazil and Lebanon. On 6 February the Lebanese candidate was sworn in, signalling an end to Sir Christopher’s nine-year term of office.

This is a bitterly disappointing diplomatic failure and can only be a step in the wrong direction for what the FCO describes as “global Britain.” This follows recent setbacks and vote losses at the UN, such as on the Chagos islands. During voting rounds, the UK candidate’s support in the UN General Assembly fell away sharply, leading to a run-off with the Indian candidate, which ended in deadlock. Further rounds of voting led to no improvement in the UK’s position, despite consistent support in the UN Security Council, and on 21 November the Government conceded the contest to the Indian candidate.

This loss is of deep concern. One of the key strengths of the UK is our commitment to multilateral governance and the application of the international rule of law. These commitments will need to play a key part in the UK’s future foreign policy strategy and in any global Britain agenda. We conclude that the lack of a UK judge on the ICJ will harm the UK’s influence on the global stage and the UK’s future foreign policy strategy.

We heard a number of possible reasons for the UK’s failure from Ministers and former UK diplomats to the UN. These ranged from the popularity of other candidates to regional allegiances and a wider shift in power away from the permanent five of the Security Council, despite the French candidate being re-elected. Perhaps the most concerning reason, however, was offered by Lord Hannay, a former UK permanent representative to the UN. He suggested that it might be an indication that the UK’s international standing had diminished, and that there might have been a fall in what he dubbed the UK’s “trepidation index”—how far other countries worry about treading on our toes.

What are the next steps? The FCO used tactics that had worked in the past and was surprised when they did not work this time around, because they expected Sir Christopher to win. The UK mission in New York lobbied extensively, as did the FCO’s network in London and overseas, and as did Government Ministers during bilateral discussions. But this did not work.

We are also concerned that the FCO does not appear to be particularly curious about why the support of other countries in the General Assembly fell away, and nor do Ministers seem too interested in finding out the reasons why the support for the UK diminished against what had been promised to them previously by other nations. When we asked the Minister what reasons he had been given by other countries, he was unable to give any definitive answer. Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, did place some emphasis on building a “Commonwealth caucus” but was unable to tell us how many Commonwealth countries—not including India, of course, whose candidate defeated the UK’s—voted for the UK’s candidate.

The FCO has rightly launched an extensive internal exercise to identify the reasons for the failure and to learn lessons for future contests. It intends to keep the findings of that exercise private but, for the sake of accountability to Parliament and the public, we recommend that it should share its findings with the Committee, so that we can assure ourselves that it is taking the required action. The FCO should also inform the Committee each time it intends to campaign for a UN position, so that we can help. However, without the benefit of incumbency, the next opportunity to elect a judge of the ICJ will be much more difficult and the FCO needs to prove that it can adapt its approach.

One resource that the FCO does not make full use of is Parliament. Members across this Chamber and in the other place have international experience and networks that can be mobilised, and we have all been part of election campaigns. We recommend that the Government should brief the Committee and other relevant parliamentary groups on future elections to make best use of this resource.

We have to ensure that the UK’s influence and guidance on international organisations such as the UN is not diminished or diminishing, which is why the FCO’s lessons report is critical to determine the causes behind this embarrassing defeat. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his statement, and to the Select Committee for its work. Does he agree that this is particularly disappointing because the United Kingdom has historically had an immensely high reputation in international law and international tribunals, and has some of the most experienced and highly regarded international lawyers, of whom Sir Christopher Greenwood is one? Does he consider that one of the lessons to be learned, in contrast to what happened in France, is that the Government must be particularly careful, as we leave the European Union, not to give any signal that we place any less value on international rules-based legal systems and international tribunals, which should remain central to the attention of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The former UK ambassador to the UN made exactly that point in evidence to the Committee. The UK was very much at the forefront in developing the international rules-based system, and we must be very careful that France does not become the voice of Europe in the UN Security Council, and therefore the voice of the UN when it comes to the place that the UK should be taking. There are, by convention—but by convention only—two places on the ICJ for European or western powers, and the fact that the UK is not there might show us that in some way the UK’s power and influence are much diminished.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he has introduced our report. This decision has been taken while we are still inside the European Union. Does he fear that, if we leave the European Union, we will have even less influence in future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is not only a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but a distinguished former Chair. There is a real danger, as I have just said, that France will become the voice of the European Union in the UN Security Council, and therefore in the UN General Assembly, which means the UK’s voice would be diminished. No direct implications of Brexit were outlined in the report, but mainly because the Minister refused to answer whether that was a reason for the defeat. However, there is no doubt that the UK’s international voice is much diminished as a result of Brexit.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his statement and his Committee on its report. Reading the report, it does not strike me that this is about the loss of UK influence in the world; it instead smacks of complete cock-up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with a lack of ministerial direction about the importance of securing this re-election and, frankly, the civil service messing up the procedure for doing so. No wonder they do not want to share the internal report with the Committee—it would be embarrassing to senior civil servants and to the Minister concerned. I encourage the Committee to pursue the cock-up theory, rather than ideas about this country’s loss of overall influence in the world.

The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly valid point. One of the recommendations in our report is that the FCO’s lessons learned report should come before the Committee, even on a private basis, so the Committee can be assured that this was a cock-up and not something wider. However, I draw his attention to the fact that the Foreign Office has used this process for a number of successful elections in previous years. Had the diminishing vote in the General Assembly been brought to the Foreign Secretary’s attention sooner, it may or may not have helped, depending on whether or not the Foreign Secretary may or may not help those particular processes. However, the hon. Gentleman’s points will be taken back to the Committee and used in future reports.

This is a blow to our international influence, and certainly to any notion of empire 2.0. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that kind of language and attitude is perhaps a contributing factor to these decisions, including the decision to refer the Chagos islands case to the ICJ? Does the Committee intend to look into whether our lack of a judge on the ICJ may have any influence on its decision on the Chagos islands case? From my point of view, restoring the islanders’ right to return would be welcome.

The Chagos islands issue is not mentioned directly in the report, although it is used as an example of where the UK has taken votes to the UN in recent times and lost. It is clear that not being on the ICJ diminishes the UK’s voice on making sensible decisions at the UN. One of the report’s conclusions is that the real difficulty is not directly the loss of a judge on the ICJ but in how we get a judge back on to the ICJ. Incumbency is a special thing in being able to promote a future election. Indeed, not being the incumbent will make it much more difficult next time.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend got the same impression as I did. Repeated witnesses told us that there was a kind of shrug at international meetings, with people saying, “What on earth are you doing with regard to Brexit? Why are you choosing to step back from your international role?” That might have contributed to this election result.

There was a second kind of shrug from all the Government Ministers, who seemed to go, “You win some, you lose some. Does it really matter?” If that is the sense permeating throughout Government, we certainly will lose influence around the world. Do we not need a much stronger sense of leadership from the top of Government, and particularly from the Foreign Secretary?

My hon. Friend is also a member of the Committee. He is right that we extensively questioned Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN, on the reasons for the loss of our place on the ICJ, and he did not seem to have any reasons for that loss. We questioned him in depth on what countries had fed back to him on why they did not vote for the UK, or why they voted for the UK in the first round and then changed their vote to another nation. Again, he did not really have a reason. There seems to be significant complacency in the Foreign Office, and Ministers, the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office will have to up their game significantly post Brexit to ensure that the UK’s voice is not diminished.

I compliment my hon. Friend and the Committee on this report. Does he agree that one of the results of the election is damage to our reputation within the UN structure itself? To take anything other than an enthusiastic view on how we can rectify the situation and do better next time would be foolish for our worldwide reputation.

My hon. Friend is right that we have to learn the lessons, which is why we have asked for the private report to be shared with the Committee when it is produced so that we can monitor what is happening in terms of future elections. One of the strongest recommendations in our report is to allow Parliament a role on these issues. Many people in the Chamber, including the distinguished former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), go on international delegations. As individual Members of Parliament, we could ensure that we use those bilateral relationships to make the case at key votes in international organisations, including the UN. That would help to keep the subject at the top of the agenda when we speak to bilaterals across the world. That is one of the key recommendations that Parliament should seriously consider so that we can all help to make sure that we win future votes.

I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating my hon. Friend on his presentation of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report and, indeed, in congratulating all the Members involved in the content of that report.

Did the Committee take evidence on whether the cuts to the Foreign Office’s budget affected its ability to lobby for the judge?

Many of the reports that the Foreign Affairs Committee has produced and is currently producing have questioned the Foreign Office on whether it has the necessary resource. The report presented by the Chair of the Committee last week showed very clearly that the Foreign Office looks as though it is robbing Peter to pay Paul, moving staff around the world to increase its presence in bilateral countries in the European Union—that resource has come from other places.

Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN, told the inquiry that he wanted to look at whether we should work on a Commonwealth caucus but that he does not have any resources to do so. It seems that the Foreign Office’s priorities are the EU, the Commonwealth and developing relationships with China and other trading partners, but the Foreign Office has no additional resource. There have been bids to the Treasury, and we encourage the Treasury Bench to consider those bids seriously so that the Foreign Office is well resourced to be able to achieve those goals.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this slot on the Floor of the House. This is the second week in a row that the Foreign Affairs Committee has succeeded in presenting one of its reports.

I am pleased to hear that the Committee is visiting Birmingham today. As a west midlands MP, I welcome that outreach. I simply want to record that I have listened to all today’s exchanges, which will be communicated to the Foreign Secretary and the ministerial team. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will obviously formally respond to the report in due course.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. We look forward to the Foreign Office not only responding to the report but producing the lessons learned report for the Committee so that we can see what we can do to ensure that Parliament can be involved in these voting processes.