That the Prime Minister is appalled that a British citizen is executed by Chinese authorities is misguided. First, the individual was convicted under the laws of a sovereign nation and punished accordingly, albeit a punishment we in Britain no longer deploy for the same offence.
Quite different was the case of the sailors caught in Iran where Britain was able to help establish there was no offence.
Second, if the reason for being appalled was that the individual was hanged, then the PM should have been appalled at hangings generally in China – numbering 8,000 annually according to some sources on the internet. That is moral outrage and quite different.
So what is the role of our Government in the internal affairs of a foreign sovereign nation? It is an issue encompassing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to genocide from Serbia to Somalia to hangings in China and climate change in Copenhagen. At what point is it right to interfere to enforce a rule or principle, does a legal right occur to supplement moral right, and under what punishment for non-compliance?
This one innocuous question will define the fate world in the 21st century. In a century that will continue to be dogged by cross-border terrorism – when and how will Britain and her allies attack actors within other nations – or indeed other nations themselves? In a century where Iran will build a nuclear bomb in breach of UN and other international treaties, what sanction is there for Britain to deploy? In a century where 3rd world countries will secretly breach climate change emission requirements – how will we in Britain respond? In a century where the proliferation of small arms to African tribes will see the erasure of whole races when two tanks and a few hundred British soldiers could end the killing – what will we do and under what authority – moral or legal?
Of course dealing with people in your own country is simple. You have laws, a method of judging their breaking, and sanctions. The ultimate sanction is the confiscation of your property or your liberty. The entire legal system is founded on the ultimate sanction that your property or liberty can be removed should you not obey the laws of the land. Take speeding. First you are fined. Then when you don’t pay, your fine is raised. Ultimately your property is confiscated.
The problem between States is first there is lack of clarity what is ‘law’. Just ask Tony Blair. Was there a validly enforceable legal UN declaration for war in Iraq? If you want an answer to why ‘we are in Iraq’ the answers relating to morality may help you sleep better at night, but the former Prime Minister and barrister should know, enforcing the law is its own justification. Morals may lead to laws, but the moment Blair brought into the public domain arguments about morality, he entered the ‘grey’ area where everyone’s definition differs and so vast swathes remain unconvinced and he became perceived as a crusading evangelist with shifting arguments.
If you want to convince the public about your actions in Iraq as Prime Minister, the answer lay in the simple fact that the law was being upheld. Yes others similar laws may not have been enforced before or since, but this one was. Let the commentators work on the morality, because it is moral enough to uphold the law. As soon as you try justifying the decision on moral grounds because you believe ‘in the force of your argument’ you may as well next try to win the hearts and minds of Al-Qaeda.
No the first role of Government is not to formulate its arguments on morals, but on laws. Sometime in the 1800s Britain moved from a system of laws formulated on religious grounds and the morals it gave rise to, to those based on liberal secular principles – most notably that in general the State will not use its ultimate sanction of sequestering your property and removing your liberty and generally will not interfere in your private affairs unless your actions causes harm to others. Of course the definition of ‘harm’ varies according to party, but the laws in Britain on say, abortion, are based not on the views of the Church but on views on harm. And Britain is better for it. For those who would rather have British laws based on morals, they usually want them based on religious morals, and that changes the fundamental rules of the game in Britain.
So too with international action for genocide and acts of terror. Where the harm results in an international law being broken, expect the sanction to have to be confiscation of property or ultimately removal of liberty – which between nations means war. Expect more war in the 21st century. There remains between nations, as within them, no more potent a sanction to ensure compliance with laws.
So just as former Prime Minister Blair should rejoice in upholding international law and leave it at that, so present Prime Minister Brown should rejoice the Chinese upheld the law.