Friends, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a huge pleasure to be here in Washington DC and an honour to address this distinguished audience.
When Britain’s great novelist, Charles Dickens, who of course you all know, visited the United States in 1842, he wrote that on the occasions he encountered his fellow Brits here, the British displayed, and I quote ‘an amount of insolent conceit and cool assumption of superiority, quite monstrous to behold.’ I want to be clear that I am not intending to repeat that!
I’ll do so not least as an admirer of America, and a humble student of American history at university. It was there I was first introduced to the defining principle, first set out by John Adams, of America as a ‘nation of laws, not of men’. And also as a barrister – i.e. attorney myself – of the inalienable right of citizens to be defended in court however unpopular their cause, also indelibly demonstrated by John Adams in his famous defence of British soldiers in the eighteenth century.
The US today is, of course, a beacon of the values that our two countries demonstrate in the world – of democracy, of diplomacy and of deference to the international rule of law, and that’s what I want to focus on today: on the importance of the rule of law, the existential threats it faces, and how together we can – and indeed we must – face down these threats and emerge stronger.
What do I mean by the rule of law in the international context? The idea that all nations are bound by common rules and principles that govern the way we interact with each other, no matter our size or power. And it’s underpinned by mutual consent and agreement, peaceful resolution of disputes, and regard for international institutions.
My central argument is that we need to restate that these are not quaint notions to get dewy-eyed over, or trite phrases to trot out in seminars; rather they can be the guarantors of freedom, security and prosperity for all our people.
And it’s worth pointing out that the order has brought about an extraordinary growth in international trade – indeed, the volume of world trade has multiplied roughly 45 times since 1950, while worldwide living standards have almost tripled. So this is no tedious law lecture. It’s food in citizens’ stomachs.
But this is now under threat. The truth is we are in a global contest of ideas, a contest between rule of law nations like ours and those who offer an authoritarian alternative, a solution that says ‘might is always right’. And it means that a global post-war consensus, which we assumed was unshakeable now needs shoring up. But rather than letting complacency reign, we must reinforce the rule of law foundations on which it was built.
We don’t need a history lesson to remind ourselves how the international rules-based international order came into being in the long shadow cast by World War II. What’s important is that it lit the way towards a new era: one based on mutual consent and common obligation… where states could resolve their disputes peacefully, act with restraint, and hold each other to account for their actions. It allowed us to achieve a depth of international co-operation that would have been unfathomable just a few short years before.
And this was properly expressed in the late George Bush senior’s visionary 1990 address to Congress following the fall of the Berlin Wall – which I was reminding myself of before I came here to America. As that authoritarian regime crumbled, he set out a vision of the world where in his words: ‘ the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak’.
But the world is very different today. The accord they worked so hard to build is not just fraying at the edges, it is threatening to break down altogether due to the actions of international actors – such as Russia and Iran. Many believed – and this is important – that it had a remorseless momentum… that it would inevitably draw rising powers into its orbit… that its future would grow and was guaranteed. I believe the illusion and assumption that nations would automatically see the benefits of the Rules Based International Order has been eroded. But why? Why has it been eroded?
The rule of law is being attacked on three fronts, contributing to this current crisis of consensus.
First, the agreements that have helped secure the world’s stability and success since 1945 are no longer respected. By ‘those agreements’ I am referring to the legally recognised borders that have been the guardian of peace over decades. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the starkest but not the only demonstration. And of course, it’s from a country, Russia, which after all is the successor state to the Soviet Union which signed and for a time broadly abided by arms reduction treaties for the benefit of all humankind.
And looking further afield, when Hamas carried out armed incursions into Israel, butchering over a thousand innocent men, women and children in their homes and taking approximately 250 more as hostages, it was an unprecedented, and wholly unlawful assault.
Amid this growing normalisation of illegality, of states disregarding borders and flouting international law, hostile geopolitical spheres of influence and indeed axes are being formed and strengthened in direct opposition to the Rules Based International Order. Recent assaults on commercial cargo ships in the Red Sea by the Hamas-supporting Houthis are just one example of these deadly alliances in action. And why have the Houthis been able to wreak so much havoc in the Red Sea? Because they are backed by agents of chaos in Iran.
And all this geopolitical unrest brings me to the second threat to the rules-based order. The reality is that this unstable geopolitical landscape is making middle ground and non-aligned states feel caught in the crossfire of conflicts for which they bear no responsibility. They understandably fear the repercussions, and some are beginning to equivocate. Desperate to avoid the costs of dispute and conflict, states are left unsure which way to turn to seek reassurance, stability, and protection.
And we must ask ourselves whether sustained instability of the type we are seeing risks making states like these feel they have no choice but to enter into alliances which undermine the Rules Based International Order. These alliances are pursuing a zero-sum outcome through fear, rather than mutual prosperity through shared values. They not only undermine the rules based order, but could shift the balance of power so the contest of ideas about how we should be governed – whether through the rules-based system as we cleave to, or through the chaos preferred by our competitors – is lost. So it is imperative that we ensure that non-aligned states and rising powers make the right choice.
And what of the poorest and most vulnerable countries? This brings me to the third risk I think we must consider. Despite huge economic advances in the Global South enabled by the Rules-Based International Order, many of the poorest countries are struggling to protect their citizens from hunger, the effects of climate change and the impact of increased populations. That in turn can pull them into the orbit of authoritarian nations who offer them a quick fix.
While rule of law underpins prosperity, its absence feeds poverty, insecurity and instability. And for citizens, this leaves many feeling they have no choice but to leave their home country and seek better opportunities elsewhere in the world. This has led to record levels of migratory movements, and fuelled illegal migration. It is clear that unmanaged illegal migration disregards borders and is putting unacceptable pressure on the national systems of rules-based countries like ours – as countries whose sovereign legislatures believe in, and consciously have chosen to be part of, the order I refer too. The actions of criminal gangs smuggling people across borders brings those very rules into disrepute, particularly if they are perceived to afford, perversely, an unfair advantage to those who break the rules rather than those who abide by them.
For rule of law countries in Europe, we are experiencing an influx of illegal migration. In the UK, that manifests as a steady stream of small boats across the English Channel bringing illegal migrants into our country. And in 2023, we saw a 36% reduction in the number of small boat arrivals compared to the year before, but we must continue to go further. Because we see dangerous tactics used by Organised Criminal Gangs to facilitate crossings and people who put their lives in the hands of criminal gangs. Too many perish. I know tragedies are also happening at your southern border.
So, what does all this mean for the rule of law, and, crucially, how we strengthen it?
Well as Thomas Paine put it in his rallying cry of 1776, “in America the law is king” – now those were heavily loaded words at the time. It meant, among other things, that the law is supreme. And if the law is supreme, it must have power, and if it must have power, it must therefore be respected. Put another way, it must be enforced.
That means ensuring accountability, it means consequences. And it means bearing down on those who commit international crimes, until justice is served.
And we can be proud of the leadership our two nations have shown. Together, we have, along with the European Union, established the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, to support Ukraine’s Prosecutor General with funding and expertise in the domestic investigation and prosecution of more than 120,000 alleged conflict related crimes.
In 2022 the UK led a state party referral to expedite the International Criminal Court’s investigation into the situation in Ukraine, and we continue to support the ICC so it has the resources it needs to carry out its independent investigations. We welcome the recent legal changes here that have enabled America to assist the ICC’s investigation into the situation in Ukraine.
And we continue to fight international terrorism in all its contexts. The UK and US were right to stand up to the aggression in the Red Sea by carrying out air strikes on strategic Houthi targets in Yemen, and the international community clearly accepts that it was the correct course of action in the circumstances.
So, amid the contest of ideas, and conflicting narratives, it is incumbent on all of us – the UK, the US and our allies in the G7 and NATO – to show that the rules-based international order works and it is worth upholding.
While others cause chaos, as part of the International Rules-Based Order – as nations who believe in the rule of law – it is our legal systems that are the engine room for prosperity across the globe, supporting trade the world over. English common law and US common law are the basis for no less than 27 percent and 20 percent of the world’s legal systems respectively.
However, both international and domestic law must evolve if they are to meet the challenges posed by insecurity, and to win what I’ve called ‘the global contest of ideas’. Because, as Thomas Paine also famously said, “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
In the UK, we are making clear once and for all that it is Parliament that should decide who comes to our country, not international criminal gangs. Through landmark emergency legislation, we will control our borders, deter people taking perilous journeys across the channel, and help end the continuous legal challenges filling our courts. We are a humane, welcoming nation but it’s fair that everyone plays by the rules.
Our legally binding removal treaty with Rwanda makes absolutely clear that individuals relocated will not be returned to a country where they might be placed in danger.
But above all, the principle of relocating people to another country to have their asylum claims processed is lawful – the UK High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court too have found it to be so. Indeed, the UN Refugee Agency itself has its own scheme for refugees in Rwanda, albeit not through treaty.
And look, the unique genius of the common law, of course, is its flexibility – its readiness to adapt and respond to societal changes and perspectives. As the UK Government has made clear, we need some of that same spirit when it comes to the challenge of uncontrolled migration, and the evolution of the rules-based system as a whole.
As countries that believe in the rule of law, it’s crucial for us to demonstrate that it works for citizens in our own countries. For our justice systems that means that while we update them to make them fit for the 21st century, we must do so in a way which strengthens the values and principles on which they are built.
Access to justice is a key part of that – probably the single biggest reason I came into politics – and the current era of rapidly changing technology is opening up new possibilities for improvement all the time. For criminal and civil justice, we must ensure that citizens can continue to access justice in ways that work for them today. And there are a number of important ways we can do this.
First, by making sure our legal systems adapt to a changing world – updating our legal frameworks to take account of advancing technology, and fostering environments in which our legal professionals are properly equipped to practise the law both now and in a more technologically driven future.
Second, by showing our communities and victims that criminal justice works – so that justice is not just done, but seen to be done. Whether that’s the worst offenders being imprisoned for longer, or those at the lower end of the scale repaying their debt to the communities they’ve wronged.
Third, by harnessing new technology to ensure that the order of the Court is properly enforced. In England and Wales, GPS and alcohol monitoring tags mean we can deliver tough community sentences, avoiding short, costly stints in prison which research shows do little to reduce reoffending. I’m looking forward to visiting New York this week to see similar projects in action.
Fourth, by developing digital tools to improve how individuals and businesses can access the law in ways that work for them, opening up early legal advice and support so they can, where appropriate, settle disputes outside of court.
Fifth and finally, by keeping pace with advancing methods of delivery, such as transformational technologies like generative AI, and fostering innovation and the growth and adoption of lawtech – so that we can maintain the attractiveness as destinations for global businesses that are a boon to both our economies.
In each area, there are opportunities; to improve justice for our citizens and to demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law; to show that we believe in its ability to make our societies fairer and allow them to flourish further; to show that we can evolve and adapt while our opponents remain rigid and dogmatic. These are some of the most powerful ways that we can make the case for the rules-based order.
So look, as others have said before me, the relationship between our two nations is not just special – it is essential. Because when we stand together in the face of the chaos that our opponents seek to create… when we pursue accountability for the wrongdoing that others wreak on their neighbours… we will win the argument for the international order that our predecessors worked so hard to build and which has served the world so well.
To end where I began, with Charles Dickens. As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed when she visited Washington in 1981, Dickens was right to say that the people here are ‘…hard to deceive, prompt to act, lions in energy.’ Those are the qualities we need, you and us – as we fiercely defend the rule of law and make the case for a more secure and more prosperous future in the world.