Tom Arms’ World Review

United States of America

Here’s the problem facing the US Supreme Court: Should US presidents – in and out of office – have total or partial immunity from criminal prosecution for acts they committed while in the Oval Office?

Or does the failure to provide this blanket immunity expose past presidents to political vendettas by their successors or other political opponents?

Or would Donald Trump’s appeal for blanket immunity – in the words of Justice Elena Kagan – “turn the Oval Office into a sea of criminality.”

This week the Justices heard oral arguments from lawyers representing Trump on one side and Special Prosecutor Jack Smith on the other. The latter is attempting to bring the former president to trial for his role in the 6 January Capitol Hill riots.

The Justices will now go away and ponder the arguments and issue a decision several weeks from now. Court-watchers are split on what the decision is likely to be. Quite often one can determine the outcome from the questions the Justices ask. Not so, this time as the Justices are painfully aware of the impact of their decision on the actions of future presidents as well as those of Donald Jesus Trump.

Many observers think the Supreme Court will issue a split decision. This would please the Trump team as it would mean referral back to the lower courts and delay, delay, delay.

As the Justices ponder, they may consider the words of pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose 1776 “Common Sense” had a major impact on the American War of Independence and the constitution which the Justices are sworn to protect. “Where,” wrote Paine, “is the King of America? In America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”

United Kingdom and Rwanda

The British government has declared itself the final arbiter of reality. It has decreed that if it says that a country is safe then it is safe, regardless of whether it is or not.

Most everyone – except for the government of Rishi Sunak – agrees that Rwanda is not safe. Freedom House judges it as “not free”. Human Rights Watch says that protesting refugees have been fired on by Rwandan police. Others have simply disappeared. The Rwandan government is supporting the M23, a violent faction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which has been accused of war crimes.

For all of these reasons – and others – the UK Supreme Court in November ruled that the Sunak’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was “unlawful” because Rwanda is not a safe country.

So the government passed a bill which decreed that Rwanda is safe and the UK Supreme Court cannot say otherwise if the UK government say it is. A clear blow to the traditional independence of the British judiciary and its much vaunted respect for the rule of law.

Fortunately the legal story has not ended. The Rwanda Bill is expected to face more legal challenges. The first is based on Britain’s Refugee Act. The next one could be related to the International Refugee Convention which commits its signatories – of which Britain is one – to provide refuge to those in need.

There is also the Convention Against Torture which prohibits the return of any individuals (including refugees) to countries where there is a risk of torture or inhumane treatment. Finally, some human rights lawyers think that there are gaps in the recently passed Rwanda Bill.

In danger is not just human lives. The independence of Britain’s judiciary and the rule of law is also under threat. These have been at the core of the British political system for centuries. Britain, in fact, has been responsible for exporting these values around the world. That it is now undermining them is an ultimate sad irony.

The Maldives

China is up in the see-saw politics of the tropical Indian Ocean paradise of the Maldives.

Normally the 500,000 residents of the low-lying archipelago of 1,192 sun-soaked coral-reef islands are more absorbed with mixing mai-tais for wealthy tourists. Or, if they want something to worry about, rising sea levels.

This week, however, their focus shifted to regional super power politics as the Maldivian electorate voted overwhelmingly to oust a vehemently pro-Indian government for a passionately pro-Chinese administration.

China and India have for decades competed for control and influence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. India because it is that country’s maritime backyard. China because it is an important link in the sea route that carries oil to China and its manufactured goods to Europe. The Maldives straddles both the equator and those sea lanes.

To protect what they perceive as their vital strategic interests, both countries have lavished billions of dollars on schools, hospitals, roads, airports and defence projects in an effort to win friends and influence voters. They have also assiduously courted the islands’ politicians who have predictably divided into a pro-Chinese camp (The People’s National Congress or PNC) and the pro-Indian camp (The Maldivian Democratic Party or MDP).

The PNC’s leader, Mohammed Muizzi, won the presidency in September. But his attempts to move the Maldives away from India and towards China were blocked by an MDP-controlled parliament. All that changed this week when the PNC won a super-majority of 66 out of 86 seats in parliamentary elections.

President Muizzi’s first post-parliamentary election act was to announce the immediate expulsion of an Indian team of pilots and technicians who had been providing air and maritime security for the islands. India, said Muizzi, is “a bully.” China, the president added, would replace India with “free military assistance.” Muizzi also announced the award of several infrastructure projects to Chinese companies and the arrival of 12 Chinese-built ambulances.

The shift to Beijing is unlikely to be the end of the story. The pro-Chinese faction were also in power from 2013 to 2018 when they joined the Belt/Road Initiative and signed a free trade deal with China. Then the MDP claimed that the government was leading the Maldives into a Chinese “debt trap.” The result was that from 2018-2024 the pro-Indian faction took command and the security deal was signed with Delhi. In most countries, foreign policy is a distant also-ran in elections. In the Maldives it is the only-ran.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Steve Trevethan 28th Apr '24 - 12:08pm

    Thank you for a timely article.
    Thank you for a timely article.

    Might the. increasing subordination of judicial independence to political power/fashion (Ruanda and Mr Assange) and the judicial management of jury input to court cases (Refusal of the acceptance of ecological evidence/statements) both endanger deep freedoms?

    Where might our party’s policies on this danger to be found?
    Do we have any relevant snappy statements/slogans?

  • Peter Hirst 7th May '24 - 2:10pm

    The question for the UK is can the law be king (or queen) without a proper constitution protected by a constitutional court?

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