Curtailing State Power(?): 4 March 2010


For those of us paid to stand at the front of rooms to lecture on the international system and ‘security studies’ (broadly defined), one of the classic little intractables is state power vs the law. One of the things that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ is, of course, adherence to the rule of law. Everyone is taught this, from school age up in the UK. And yet, the behaviour of states tells us that international law is a flexible and, er, pragmatic device…

Richard Aldrich, in his chapter in Mike Goodman and my book‘Spinning Intelligence’ referred to what he describes (in the intelligence realm) as ‘regulation by revelation’ – in short splashes by media outlets, NGOs and even bloggers releasing information into the public realm to hold agencies and governments to account. Whilst he obviously couldn’t discuss the assassination in Dubai – the outpouring of information, video footage and reportage would fit his description perfectly.

Domestic courts also provide another forum through which governmental sovereignty – in this case the freedom to act – can be seen to be circumscribed. A good example of this emerged this week with the two small campaign groups – Campaign Against Arms Trade, and The Corner House (which is almost literally the only thing in Sturminster Newton in Dorset) securing yet another victory in the courts, this time against the British government. They won an injunction against the SFO, which now prevents the British government from any further negotiations with BAE over financial settlements they have tried to reach to avoid further investigations into the conduct of foreign trade arrangements, and any potential prosecutions that might fall out of these investigations. The British government has been keen to bring these issues to a close, to allow its principle engineering firm and defence manufacturer to move on, but the anti-arms trade campaigners have developed this legal route as an increasingly effective means to circumscribe government action.

So, do these marginal incidents amount to a curtailment of state power? I’d argue not. They generate some heat of publicity, some attention onto aspects of governmental practice, and only at the extreme ends – in a case like Arar in Canada – does it produce change. What might be more interesting, is to consider the growth of transnational single issue groups, and the developments of their tactics.


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