No Pain, All Gain: The Case for Farming Organs in Brainless Humans

by Ruth Stirton and David Lawrence

Ruth Stirton

It is widely acknowledged that there is a nationwide shortage of organs for transplantation purposes.  In 2016, 400 people died whilst on the organ waiting list.  Asking for donors is not working fast enough.  We should explore all avenues to alleviate this problem, which must include considering options that appear distasteful.  As the world gets safer, and fewer young people die in circumstances conducive to the donation of their organs, there is only so much that increased efficiency in collection (through improved procedures and storage) can do to increase the number of human organs available for transplantation. Xenotransplantation – the transplantation of animal organs into humans – gives us the possibility of saving lives that we would certainly lose otherwise.

There are major scientific hurdles in the way of transplanting whole animal organs into humans, including significant potential problems with incompatibility and consequent rejection.  There is, however, useful similarity between human and pig cells, which means that using pigs as the source of organs is the most likely to be viable.  Assuming, for the moment, that we can solve the scientific challenges with doing so, the bigger issue is the question of whether we should engage in xenotransplantation.

A significant challenge to this practice is that it is probably unethical to use an animal in this way for the benefit of humans. Pigs in particular have a relatively high level of sentience and consciousness, which should not be dismissed lightly.  Some would argue that animals with certain levels of sentience and consciousness – perhaps those capable of understanding what is happening to them – have moral worth and are entitled to respect and protection, and to be treated with dignity.  It is inappropriate to simply use them for the benefit of humanity.  Arguably, the level of protection ought to correlate to the level of understanding (or personhood), and thus the pig deserves a greater level of protection than the sea cucumber.  The problem here is that the sea cucumber is not sufficiently similar to the human to be of use to us when we’re thinking about organs for transplantation purposes.  The useful animals are those closest to us, which are by definition those animals with more complex brains and neural networks, and which consequently attract higher moral value.

The moral objection to using animals in this way arises because of their levels of cognition.  This moral objection would disappear if we could prevent the animals ever developing the capacity for consciousness: they would never become entities capable of being harmed.  If we were able to genetically engineer a brainless pig, leaving only the minimal neural circuits necessary to maintain heart and lung function,  it could act as organic vessel for growing organs for transplantation.  The objection based on the use of a conscious animal disappears, since this entity – it’s not clear the extent to which is it possible to call it an animal – would have no consciousness.  It is correspondingly difficult to ground an objection in the undignified treatment of the entity.  Arguments relying on dignity imply that there is a conscious entity that is entitled to be treated with respect.  Since this engineered pig has no capacity to possess consciousness or even cognition at all, it is difficult to argue that it is capable of possessing any dignity in this sense, that can or should be protected.  Since the sentience and consciousness has been prevented, the vessel is more akin to an agricultural field than it is to a ‘normal’ pig.  There is no sense in which we would object to a ploughed field being sown with crops.  It is equally difficult to see how we could object to this vessel made of organic matter which happens to be shaped like a pig being used to grow organs.

This brings us to another scientific hurdle.  While pig organs are likely to be the most compatible with the human body, they are not necessarily ideal, and many people may not be able to handle non-human organs.  The next stage is to use the organic vessel as a host to grow human organs from induced pluripotent stem cells.  The iPSCs have no consciousness or sentience that attracts moral value.  Nor does the organic vessel.  It is simply a complex collection of organic matter, grown in a machine that happens to be made of similar materials, that is more compatible with the protection of human life.  If organs were grown from iPSCs that were HLA tissue typed to the individual patient then organs would be perfectly matched and rejection would be even less likely to occur.  Experimentation into chimeric organisms that can do just this are underway and are increasingly successful, albeit in sentient creatures.

However, this process is still less than perfect.  Using a vessel that originated from pig matter is not the ideal growing medium for human organs.  It would be much more likely to be successful if the vessel came from human tissue matter.  We can apply the same reasoning as for our pig vessel, with an escalation.  The respect and moral value that human beings attract is due to their capacity for consciousness and feelings – the elements of personhood.  We nurture consciousness and intelligence, and we protect the ability to develop consciousness once an entity with the capacity to develop consciousness comes into being.  If we were able to genetically engineer brainless humans, then the reasons behind these protections no longer apply.  The object – it is not possible to call it a human being since it has no consciousness – has no capacity for consciousness, nor did it have the potential for capacity for consciousness since it would not have been created except in these circumstances.  It is at best, similarly to the vessel of pig origin, a collection of organic matter that happens to be shaped like a member of the species Homo sapiens.  The organs grown within this vessel would be the most compatible with patients, and would help to alleviate the organ shortage crisis.

In relation to both types of vessel there are challenges to be overcome with the growing phase.  They would have to be grown using ectogenesis, outside of the womb.  A living ‘mother’, whether pig or human, would be caused a great deal of pain and suffering through gestating a brainless foetus.  Furthermore, pregnancy itself is not without its physical risks, irrespective of any mental anguish that might be suffered.  Ultimately, it is not necessary to use human persons to host the organ growth vessels since the development of the Biobag, an external womb that has been used to continue gestating premature lambs.  It is within the realms of possibility that organic matter of human origin could be grown within the Biobag, and this would also avoid some of the criticisms levelled at ectogenesis regarding parental bonds.

The transplantable organ shortage is critical.  It is imperative to find new means of procuring organs in the context of an ageing population.  It is important to continue to encourage the population to sign up to donation registers, and to pursue research into how chimeras – human/animal hybrids – can reduce immunological rejection rates.  But we must recognise that our initial distaste may be preventing us from implementing other solutions that may be more effective and more efficient.  There is no good reason to ascribe any particular value to meat that has never – and could never have – suffered, regardless of its appearance or genetic origin.  If we can do an immense good, by reducing suffering and saving the lives of the 400 people a year who die in the UK waiting for a transplant, all whilst not causing any harm or disrespect to another creature, is it right that some sense of discomfort should prevent us from doing so?  We say no, discomfort is not a good enough reason.  Further, if we were to follow this path, it is imperative to do it in the way that has the most chance of success, the creation of genuine human organs which will avoid all the scientific issues of xenotransplantation.  It is not enough to grown organs in brainless animals.   We should go further and grow human organs in organic vessels of human origin.

We do not suggest that this is the only solution or even the right one. However, the organic vessel of human origin serves to illustrate that even those methods we may have dismissed out of hand are no longer necessarily repugnant nor even morally problematic.

Ruth Stilton is a Lecturer in Health Care Law at the University of Sussex, and David Lawrence is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University. This post first appeared on the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog


Where did all the privacy injunctions go? A response to the Queen’s Bench ‘Media List’ consultation

According to the latest official statistics on privacy injunctions in January to December 2016 there were just three proceedings where the High Court considered an application for a new interim privacy injunction. Two were granted, one was refused.

Two appeals were heard in the Court of Appeal against a granting or refusal of an interim injunction (the refused application mentioned above) before it went to the Supreme Court, where the injunction was upheld until trial or further order (though the case isn’t identified, we can safely assume this is the well publicised case of PJS v News Group Newspapers).

This data has been collected for the past six years as a result of the Master of the Rolls’ report on super injunctions, conducted in the wake of the super injunction furore of 2010-11.

Following his recommendation that HMCTS and the MOJ investigate the viability of data collection on privacy injunctions, a new Civil Practice Direction was introduced to ensure judges recorded data relating to specified cases. These include civil proceedings in the High Court or Court of Appeal in which the court considers applications, continuations and appeals of injunctions prohibiting the publication of private or confidential information (the scheme does not include proceedings to which the Family Procedure Rules 2010 apply, to immigration or asylum proceedings, or to proceedings which raise issues of national security).

Prior to the introduction of this regime, it was impossible to say how many ‘super’ or anonymous injunctions had been granted historically, as the MR (then Lord Neuberger) conceded at the time.

But how accurate is the Ministry of Justice data? According to the Inforrm media law blog, not very. Although the data purports to show fluctuation and an overall decrease in injunction applications since a peak in January to July 2012, the Inforrm blog has shown these statistics are “clearly incomplete”. The evidence is incontrovertible: there are public judgments in five privacy injunction applications in 2016. Furthermore, there have been press reports of other proceedings with no published judgments.

Inforrm remarked: “It is difficult to ascertain the true figure as many injunctions are never the subject of publicity – often because they relate to threatened ‘privacy disclosures’ by private individuals who subsequently agree to permanent undertakings. It seems likely that there were at least four times as many applications for privacy and confidentiality injunctions in 2016 than those recorded [by the] Civil Justice Statistics Quarterly. The reasons for this under reporting are unclear.”

It was worth remarking, as the judge in charge of the Media and Communications List at the Royal Courts of Justice, Mr Justice Warby, has now launched a short consultation for practitioners and other court users.

Among other questions it asks users whether they agree that (a) collection of statistics is worthwhile, and (b) whether they think the current system is adequate.

On behalf of The Transparency Project, Paul Magrath (ICLR), Julie Doughty (Cardiff University) and I (University of Sussex) have responded: answering that (a) yes, collection of statistics is worthwhile, and (b) no, the current system is inadequate. Our submission can be downloaded here [PDF].

There is no official space for extra comment, but we offer the following observations and hope there will be an opportunity to engage further with the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice on this issue, and broader points about access to the courts (there is, for example, a problem about access to information about reporting restrictions and defamation cases, as I have previously written about here and here).

We welcomed the Master of the Rolls’ recommendation in 2011 for HMCTS to examine the feasibility of introducing a data collection system for all interim non-disclosure orders, including super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions.

Prior to this, there had been much confusion in the media and on social media about the number and type of injunctions that had been granted. There was some criticism of media exaggeration and distortion but at the same time, no reliable source of information existed with which to check the claims that were being made. 

At a press conference marking the launch of the release of the Master of the Rolls’ report, Lord Neuberger said he ‘would not like to say precisely how many’ super injunctions or anonymous injunctions had been granted since 2000. The number could not be ascertained because no reliable records had been kept.

It is our view that it is wholly unacceptable that no reliable information exists for how many injunctions were granted historically. We were pleased therefore when the Ministry of Justice began publishing results twice a year. However, we do not think the system is reliable or complete, as has recently been observed on the Inforrm media law blog. It is worrying that HMCTS and the MOJ did not appear to notice the incompleteness of the data.

We recommend that judges should record all interim and final non-disclosure orders, including super injunctions and anonymised injunctions and relating to publication of private and confidential information (by mainstream media organisations or other publishers including individuals) – as defined in Practice Direction 40F.

We have two concerns about the process to date despite the PD being in force:

First, that not all such orders have been recorded. We do not know the reason for this. It is important that PD 40F is followed and enforced. Although we ticked option 5b, we do not think the judge’s completion of the form should rely solely on legal representatives prompting the judge to complete the form as they may have no incentive to do so. HMCTS should also ensure that the data has been correctly completed by the judge. Therefore, as part of the data collection exercise, HMCTS should have an audit procedure for ensuring data is being correctly and systematically collected.

Second, we do not think that the format of the data is accessible or as useful as it could be. We think that the anonymised case names should be published alongside the statistics to allow for verification of the data and cross-referencing with any published judgments (there would be rare exception where a ‘true’ super injunction was in force). We think the MOJ and HMCTS should also collect information relating to the eventual outcome: when an order is discontinued or expires, for example.

Given the narrow remit of this consultation, we will keep these comments brief. However, we have other ideas for how transparency and access to information in media proceedings could be improved with view to improving public understanding and education in these types of proceedings. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these with you and would like to join any future meeting and discussions of users of the Media and Communications List.

Judith Townend is a lecturer and researcher based at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project core group. This post first appeared on the Transparency Project blog.

Religious freedom and school uniforms: Shabina Begum, ten years on

Nuno Ferreira
Maria Moscati
Maria Moscati



The UK stands out in Europe for having school uniforms across the state school system. This has been a source of conflict in many instances, from cases involving cornrows as hairstyle to boys wearing skirts in Cambridgeshire and Sussex for being prohibited from wearing shorts in warm weather. Most cases reaching the news and the courts, however, relate to religious beliefs. The last decade brought us many such cases: Lydia Playfoot wished to wear a chastity ring due to her Christian beliefs, Sarika Watkins-Singh wished to wear a bangle at school on grounds of her religious (and ethnic) Sikh identity, and X wished to wear a niqab on the basis of her Muslim religion. Perhaps most famously, Shabina Begum failed to convince the House of Lords that she should be allowed to wear the jilbab to school. It has now been ten years that the House of Lords decided in Begum that schools are free to prevent certain types of religious dress for the sake of a sense of community and cohesion.

Shabina Begum in the spotlight

Shabina was only 13 when she decided that, to comply with her religious beliefs, she should wear a jilbab, which consists of a long coat-like garment. Her autonomy was questioned and her self-determination was denied. A key argument from the School to deny Shabina the right to wear the jilbab was that other girls could also feel under pressure to do the same. However, the School did not consider it appropriate to survey the students directly about their feelings. Begum herself, in an interview we conducted with her in February 2016, stated that:

I find this really absurd, patronising, when someone says ‘maybe other girls can feel pressured to doing that’. When we have a problem in society; when girls have been pressured to do things that they don’t want to do, the solution isn’t (…) stopping other people from practicing their religion, because these things do happen, girls may feel pressured even to wear the headscarf. And to tackle that you have groups, you have mediation, you talk to them, you give children, girls, men, women, everyone the confidence to do what they want in society, freedom to do what they want. (…) You can’t infringe somebody’s rights just because somebody else feels threatened. If you live in a society where someone might feel threatened from somebody else, then we all should look the same (…). But we don’t live in a society where everyone is the same. No, we are very different, we are a multicultural society.

By the time the House of Lords  issued its judgment, Shabina had resumed her studies, but she nevertheless lost two years of school. Since then, she has married, become a mother of two children, and started her own businessas a designer of ‘contemporary modest clothing’, namely abayas (robe-like dresses that cover the whole body except the face, feet and hands). Her self-image as an intelligent and autonomous woman has thus been vindicated. And yet, this House of Lords decision has had a lasting impact on policy-making and subsequent cases before the Courts ever since.

Policy on school uniforms

The current Department of Education guidance on school uniforms still maintains that schools’ governing bodies are free (and indeed obliged) to decide if  the school should adopt a uniform and, if so, what that uniform should be. This decision is situated in the context of governing bodies’ duties to promote good behaviour and discipline. The Guidance also encourages schools, however, to take into account parents’ and pupils’ views and to take seriously requests to vary from uniform policies, in particular to meet the ‘needs of any individual pupil to accommodate their religion or belief, ethnicity, disability or other special considerations’. Succinctly, but effectively, the Guidance informs that ‘[p]upils have the right to manifest a religion or belief, but not necessarily at all times, places or in a particular manner’. When facing any requests to accommodate the expression of religious beliefs through a variance to the school uniform, schools are advised to strike a balance between the rights of the individual student in question and the need to promote ‘cohesion and good order’ or ‘genuine health and safety or security considerations’. Interestingly, the Guidance points out that it should be possible to accommodate most religious requirements through existing uniform policies and that governing bodies should act ‘reasonably’ and use ‘consultation and dialogue’ to accommodate religious requirements. Similarly pertinent is the Guidance’s observation that requesting a pupil to return home to adhere to the school uniform is ‘not an exclusion but an authorised absence’, to prevent pupils’ claims that they have been excluded.

Such detailed guidance, with particular relevance in the context of the expression of religious beliefs, is almost certainly the consequence of litigation, including the Begum case. The main outcome is that the school is entitled to reach its own reasoned uniform policy. Yet, it has remained contentious whether schools should be allowed to restrict pupils’ religious freedom through their uniform policies. How school uniforms are regulated is crucial for individual freedoms, education policy and social relationships. It is a reflection of a society’s genuine willingness to accommodate and respect difference and facilitate a multicultural environment.

Why school uniforms?

The very existence of school uniform policies needs to be questioned from a children’s rights perspective. Uniform policies may well be lawful from a positive legal perspective. Yet, it is important to reflect on whether they are maintainable in the contemporary British society, with all its ethnic, religious and ideological diversity. It is also important to reflect on how children perceive school uniforms.

In this respect, Cherie Booth QC – who acted as counsel for Shabina Begum and spoke to us in November 2015 – asks a very pertinent question:

we’re fighting over is… 12 inches of skirt… why is that so shocking, why can’t we – even if [the members of the House of Lords] conceive that religion sensibility can be accommodated within the school – then why are we having this battle?

Challenges to school uniforms come from all sorts of directions. If some of these challenges are victorious – like the cornrows hairstyle and the Sarika Watkins-Singh cases mentioned above – why not others? Where should one draw the line? The existing decisions – in favour of Sikhs and Caribbean descendants, but not Muslims and Christians – suggest that ethnic heritage is much better protected than religious or other beliefs. Is this warranted?

Lord Scott of Foscote, in the decision in Begum, made a pertinent statement in this regard: ‘There is not much point in having a school uniform policy if individual pupils can decide for themselves what they will wear’. That may well be true, but if some can decide to honour their ethnic background, why cannot others also gain the same degree of respect for their religious beliefs? This seems to be the classical case of a slippery slope: once some exceptions to the rule (a uniform policy) are accepted, other exceptions may follow until the rule is no longer tenable. To hold on to the uniform policy in these circumstances is to risk enforcing discriminatory rules, with very limited benefits.

What the future should hold

Baroness Hale of Richmond in Begum defended school uniforms by stating that a ‘uniform dress code can play its role in smoothing over ethnic, religious and social divisions’. Despite questioning the actual decision in Begum, Cherie Booth QC supports school uniforms as well: ‘I have always been in favour of school uniforms, because I think it does give a level playing field in schools’. That may to a certain extent be true, but the use of uniform policies in pursuing that aim may well be close to irrelevant in an educational system with a significant number of single-sex, religious and private schools that segment society along gender, religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines. No uniform policy will smooth those differences – nothing short of a radical reform of the British educational system would be required to reduce ethnic, religious and social divisions.

The courts are perhaps not the best arena for such high expectations. The language of rights and human rights law – in particular children’s rights – may achieve great deeds, but – as Pieterse reminds us – one must recognise that ‘the transformative potential of rights is significantly thwarted by the fact that they are typically formulated, interpreted, and enforced by institutions that are embedded in the political, social, and economic status quo’. Much public debate, a bold Parliament and a determined executive are needed to carry this sort of reforms.


Nuno Ferreira is a Professor of Law, and Maria Moscati a Lecturer in Family Law, both at the University of Sussex. This post first appeared in the SLSA blog

Public procurement, Brexit and the WTO GPA

Kamala Dawar
Kamala Dawar

In a recent briefing paper, I illustrate that the sheer value of public procurement contracts makes them important both economically and for providing society with essential public goods, services and infrastructure. In 2013/14, the UK public sector accounted for 33% of UK public sector spending and 13% of GDP3 – so ensuring good public procurement policy is beneficial to markets and taxpayers.

Currently, the UK’s procurement laws fall under the application of the EU’s 2014 Procurement Directives for Goods and Services, Utilities and Concessions. The EU has also negotiated the coverage of the WTO Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) on behalf of all 28 EU Member States and various PTAs, most recently the EU-Canada CETA, which includes a comprehensive chapter of public procurement provisions. The Great Repeal Bill aims to revoke the European Communities Act 1972 and to incorporate current applicable EU law into an Act of Parliament. Additionally, following the Devolution Settlement of 1998, certain competences – including public procurement – were devolved to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland . So, unless the laws affecting devolved issues are unilaterally scrapped by Westminster as a consequence of Brexit, the Great Repeal Bill will result in decentralising government procurement legislation. This could potentially fragment a coherent UK-wide procurement strategy towards the WTO GPA, as well as in its PTAs.

From a negotiator’s perspective, a prerequisite to repositioning the UK’s trade terms post-Brexit is therefore going to involve establishing the UK’s Most Favoured Nation commitments under
the GATT and GATS, with all the other 164 or more Members – including the EU. Some commentators have argued otherwise – that the UK is already a WTO Member with independent rights and obligations, including those relating to its MFN coverage in goods and services. This seems an optimistic and overly simplistic interpretation
 in the case of services markets committed under the GATS schedules, where the UK’s commitments are set out both independently
and jointly with the EU. The UK will need independently to set out its GATS Schedule whether or not it is certified by other WTO Members, because the UK needs a schedule upon which to trade. So, it is not until the UK has formally determined its MFN coverage under the WTO that the UK can seek to negotiate a more favourable trade agreement with the EU or other 3rd parties. After Brexit, a pragmatic short-term solution would be
to retain current regulations for the award procedures under the Great Repeal Act, but without conferring their benefits to suppliers from third parties without reciprocal arrangements. The freedom from the imposition of EU Procurement Directives will have implications for the
 UK’s internal procurement policy.

As a consequence of
the devolution settlement of 1998, public procurement became an area of responsibility for the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Following Brexit, the different parts of the UK will no longer be forced to apply the same public procurement rules, and different policy objectives are likely to appear in the award of procurement contracts, promoting different local economic development and social goals.

In 2013/14, the UK public sector spent a total of £242 billion on procurement of goods and services. There is political pressure to use this sum to pursue a variety 
of public policy aims, such as promoting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) or encouraging local growth. Indeed, both of these objectives were stated
aims of the UK’s coalition government of 2010-2015, which in 2013/14, set a target for central government to procure 25% of goods and services by value from small and medium-sized enterprises. The 2015 Conservative manifesto included a pledge to increase the percentage spent with small and medium-sized enterprises to a third.

Recent WTO disputes indicate that procurement policies promoting industrial or environmental policies are actionable under various multilateral agreements, even if they have been exempted from the WTO GPA commitments. The UK will need to ensure that horizontal policy objectives implemented through devolved procurement awards are in compliance not only with the WTO GPA, but also under other multilateral rules including the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, the GATT, GATS and the TRIMs.

The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) also issued a revised interpretation of the concept of an undertaking for the purposes of the application of EU competition law to encompass economic agents engaging in a combination of both economic and non-economic activities. In the EasyPay case, the CJEU determined that an activity will be considered as economic – unless it has links with another activity that fulfils an exclusively social function – based on the principle of solidarity and entirely non-profit making. Moreover, such an activity must, by its nature, aims and the rules to which it is subject, be ‘inseparably’ connected to its social function.

The EasyPay Judgment was significant in departing from existing case law to confirm that for the purposes of
the application of EU competition law, an undertaking is
any entity – even a procurement agency – engaged in an economic activity, irrespective of its legal status and the
way in which it is financed. And further, that any activity consisting in offering goods and services on a given market is an economic activity. Of additional relevance here is
the 2014 High Court in England ruling on the application of the UK competition rules to tender design of an exclusive concessions contract tendered to Luton Operations to run
a bus service between the airport bus terminal and central London. In this case, the contracting authority was found to have abused its dominant position by negotiating a seven- year deal with the successful bidder when there would have been sufficient capacity for a second operator after three years. The long exclusivity generated a higher return for Luton Operations, which was held to be bad for consumers and an abuse of dominance in the buying market.

Promoting this integrated approach to implementing competition and public procurement law and policy may also be helpful in counterbalancing the centrifugal forces of devolution, undermining the benefits of competition
in public procurement. For example, this could involve centralised monitoring of horizontal policy objectives through procurement awards in the different regions of
the UK, following a similar assessment and surveillance system. This would also provide a more transparent, coherent and competitive framework for potential bidders, which would be of particular benefit to SMEs that wish
to enter these lucrative markets. Currently the EU has 
one of the most developed State aid control systems
in the world. The UK is likely to continue to apply some form of State aid control following Brexit. Providing the
 UK competition authority with the mandate to oversee 
the monitoring and enforcement of competition law, State aid control and public procurement rules would help to ensure that decentralised legislation conforms to WTO commitments towards non-discrimination and subsidy control. Such centralised supervisory powers could also act as a counterweight against legal fragmentation, which could disproportionately undermine economies of scale
as well as the benefits of competition and value for money in public procurement following the devolution of these competencies.

The briefing paper concludes by hoping that what could be a relatively straightforward discussion concerned with improving transparency, competition and value for money when awarding public procurement contracts, is not overshadowed by complex sequencing of negotiations, intra-UK jurisdictional divergences, and intractable political legacies with the EU.

Kamala Dawar is a Lecturer in Commercial Law at the University of Sussex. The briefing paper was published for the UK Trade Policy Observatory on 28 March 2017. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

Can a notification under article 50 be unilaterally withdrawn?

Paul Eden
Paul Eden

Now that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act has received Royal Assent, the UK government is on track to meet its deadline of invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union (TEU) by the end of March. Whilst it seems inevitable that the UK will indeed invoke Article 50 a key question that remains is whether we can change our minds and stop the whole process, perhaps when we are a year down the line or if there was a change in government in the UK.

In the Miller case it was common ground between the parties “that notice under Article 50(2)… cannot be given in qualified or conditional terms and that, once given, it cannot be withdrawn” (at [26]) although, as Lord Carsworth noted in his dissenting judgment, this assumption is “possibly controversial” (at [261]). This blogpost addresses the possible legal basis of any unilateral right to revoke a notification of a notice of withdrawal made in accordance with Articles 50(1) and 50(2) TEU by examining, first, the potential applicability of Article 68 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). Secondly, the blogpost examines Article 50 TEU to determine whether the express wording implicitly excludes the right of unilateral revocation of notification of intention to withdraw from the EU. Finally, the blogpost argues that even if the other members of the EU unanimously agreed to allow the United Kingdom to revoke a notification of withdrawal, this might amount to an amendment of Article 50 TEU and present practical problems for Member States whose national law requires specific constitutional obligations at a national level for amendments to EU Treaties to take effect.

The applicability of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties

The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties is a multilateral treaty governing the law relating to the key aspects of treaty conclusion, application, interpretation and termination. It is only binding with regard to treaties concluded between states that are parties to the VCLT but many of its provisions are regarded as reflecting customary international law and are binding on parties and non-parties to the VCLT alike.

The starting point for many of the arguments that a notice of withdrawal made in accordance with the provisions of Article 50 TEU can be unilaterally revoked appears to be Article 68 VCLT which states that

A notification or instrument provided for in Articles 65 or 67 may be revoked at any time before it takes effect. [Emphasis added]

The italicised words are often omitted in discussions about the applicability of Article 68 VCLT to the Article 50 TEU debate. Article 65 VCLT is concerned with the procedure to be followed where a party to a treaty invokes either a defect in its consent to be bound or a ground for impeaching the validity of the treaty. Article 67 VCLT is concerned with the modalities of this particular notification process. As the proposed British withdrawal from the European Union is not based on either a defect in its original consent to be bound or on an assertion that the treaties on which the EU is based are invalid, there does not appear to be a basis for the application of Article 68 VCLT unless, as has been asserted in a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, “it is a general principle of international law” (at page 10).

The VCLT cannot apply directly to the Treaty on European Union (TEU) because France and Romania have never been parties to the VCLT and Malta only acceded to the VCLT after the TEU was signed on 13 December 2007. In several cases, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has acknowledged that the VCLT may still be relevant to the extent that its provisions reflect customary international law. See Case C-162/96 Racke GmbH & Co v Hauptzollamt Mainz [1998] ECR I-3688 [24] and Case C-386/08 Brita GmBH v Hauptzollamt Hamburg-Hafen [2010] ECR I-1289 [42].

Is Article 68 VCLT a customary norm of international law?

In the North Sea Continental Shelf Cases the International Court of Justice (ICJ) acknowledged that “fundamentally norm-creating” provisions of a multilateral treaty can constitute the foundation of a rule of customary international law binding on states (at [72]). It is however questionable whether the essentially procedural stipulation contained in Article 68 VCLT would fall within the category of a fundamentally norm-creating provision that can potentially form the basis of a general rule of law in any event. In the Case Concerning the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Project (the Danube Dam case) the ICJ noted that Articles 65-67 VCLT contained “procedural principles which are based on an obligation to act in good faith” (at [109]) and that both parties to that case were agreed that these Articles “if not codifying customary law, at least generally reflect customary international law” (ibid). It must be stressed however that it was the parties to the case and not the ICJ itself that asserted that Articles 65-67 VCLT reflected customary international law and, given the fact that there have been numerous reservations to Article 66 VCLT, this assertion of the customary status of Articles 65-67 VCLT should be approached with caution.

Some commentators are doubtful that Article 68 VCLT can be considered customary law (see, for example, A Tzanakopoulos “Article 68” in The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: A Commentary Volume II (O Corten and P Klein (eds)) (OUP, 2011) 1565) but, even if Article 68 VCLT is to be regarded as a customary norm, its customary status must been seen in the context of the “complex and inter-related” (Sir Ian Sinclair, The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (2nd edn, Manchester UP, 1984) 159) provisions contained in Articles 65-68 VCLT. Put simply, Articles 65-68 VCLT contain an obligation subjecting a particular class of treaty withdrawals to a dispute settlement process. The outcome of this dispute settlement process may well be the realisation that the withdrawing state’s consent to be bound was not in fact defective and/or there were in fact no valid grounds for impeaching the treaty. Consequently, it is entirely appropriate to give effect to the possible success of a dispute settlement process held in accordance with Article 66 VCLT by expressly providing that the original instrument of withdrawal can be revoked in Article 68 VCLT.

What is generally agreed is that Article 68 VCLT reflects procedural principles stemming from an obligation to act in good faith and, in the Interpretation of the Agreement of 25 March 1951 between the WHO and Egypt Advisory Opinion, the ICJ stressed the need to “have reasonable regard to the interests of the other part[ies] to the treaty” (at [47]) when exercising a right of withdrawal from a treaty.

Interpreting Article 50 TEU

Even if no right to revoke a notification of an intention to withdraw from the EU can be found in customary international law, such a right might be found, expressly or impliedly in the wording of Article 50 TEU itself. Alternatively, if one believes that Article 68 VCLT embodies a general principle of customary international law that permits the revocation of a notification of withdrawal at any time before it takes effect, the wording of Article 50 TEU may implicitly exclude the application of this alleged general principle.

A recent legal opinion entitled In the Matter of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, written by five eminent QC’s including a former Judge of the Court of Justice (Sir David Edward) and a former Advocate General (Sir Francis Jacobs), argues that

The language of Article 50 does not require a Member State’s decision to withdraw from the European Union to be irrevocable or unconditional prior to it being notified. The use of the word ‘intention’ in Article 50(2), and the present tense ‘which decides’, rather than ‘has decided’, allows for the possibility that a Member State may change its decision and, therefore, its intention. [49(ii)]

It is equally true to say that Article 50(2) TEU does not expressly permit a conditional or revocable notice of withdrawal and there is no evidence to suggest that the United Kingdom intends to submit a conditional notice of withdrawal in any event. Further, as the TEU is equally authentic in 23 languages (Article 55 TEU), any argument entirely premised on the use of the present tense of the verb “decides” in the English text of the TEU is rather less than convincing.

As the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act satisfies the constitutional conditions laid down by the UK Supreme Court in the Miller case, the UK has satisfied the obligation contained in Article 50(1) TEU that any decision to withdraw from the EU must be in accordance with the withdrawing state’s constitutional requirements. Professor Paul Craig (‘Brexit: a drama in six acts’ (2016) 41 European Law Review 447, 464) has argued that if a Member State subsequently changed its mind

it could be argued that if this occurred there would then no longer be a valid decision to withdraw, since the original decision had been changed in accordance with national constitutional requirements.

This argument cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of inter-temporal law that acts should be judged in the light of the legal position at the time of their creation. Even if the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act had contained a provision giving both Houses of Parliament the right to veto any withdrawal agreement (the so-called “meaningful vote” amendment inserted by the House of Lords but rejected by the House of Commons), Article 27 VCLT embodies the customary norm that a state “may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty” and thus any such provision could not be invoked as a justification to revoke a notice of withdrawal unless there was a pre-existing right in either general international law or specifically provided for by the wording of Article 50 TEU.

Does Article 50 TEU embody a right to revoke a notification of withdrawal from the EU?

The key problem with the argument that a right to revoke is implicit in the wording of Article 50 TEU is that Article 50(3) TEU provides that, in the absence of a withdrawal agreement, “[t]he treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question…. two years after the notification [of intention to withdraw]…, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.” The requirement that an extension of the two-year period requires unanimous consent is in sharp contrast to the qualified majority required for the withdrawal agreement under Article 50(2) TEU. Further, Article 50(5) TEU makes it clear that any state that has withdrawn from the EU under Article 50 that wishes to re-join must make a new application under Article 49 TEU. The wording of Articles 50(3) and 50(5) TEU taken together support the conclusion that the unilateral revocation of a notification of withdrawal is not permitted. As noted above, the Interpretation of the Agreement of 25 March 1951 between the WHO and Egypt Advisory Opinion is authority for the proposition that the United Kingdom has an obligation to have reasonable regard for the interests of the other Member States of the EU when exercising its right of withdrawal under Article 50 TEU. Any unilateral right to revoke a notice of withdrawal would not have reasonable regard for the interests of the other Member States of the EU given the wording of Articles 50(3) and 50(5) TEU.


While there is no doubt that the other Member States of the EU could unanimously agree to allow the United Kingdom to revoke a notification of withdrawal, if the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) did not accept that the Member States implicitly possessed this power under the current wording of Article 50 TEU, this magnanimous act would amount to an amendment of Article 50 TEU and this might present practical problems for Member States whose national law requires specific constitutional obligations at a national level for amendments to EU Treaties to take effect (such as referendums etc.).


Paul Eden is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex. This  article was originally published in the UK Trade Policy Observatory’s blog. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.

Trump’s immigration ban and Europe: the courage to raise a mirror and look beyond it

Nuno Ferreira

Since President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on 27 January 2017 entitled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into The United States’, traditional media outlets and social media have been in a frenzy of activity. Protests have taken place around the world and there have been reports of dramatic scenes at airports. Indignation against the Executive Order was understandable: although couched in the language of prevention of terrorism and protection of national interest, the discriminatory and arbitrary character of the measure was apparent. Indeed, the Executive Order suspended the issuance of ‘Visas and other Immigration Benefits to Nationals of Countries of Particular Concern’, namely Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Moreover, the Executive Order suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Such discrimination against Muslim-majority countries and arbitrary refusal of refugees rightly appalled politicians and civil society alike in countries around the world – especially when considering this measure in the context of all Donald Trump’s initiatives, statements and background of a discriminatory and bigoted character. This original Executive Order has been in the meantime suspended by a US federal judge, following a string of lawsuits and on the basis of a range of legal grounds. Yet, a revised, softer version has been issued on 6 March 2017, which predictably prompted immediate academic criticism and judicial actions. And whilst most people – including myself – may find these orders abject measures and a violation of international and human rights law, including children’s rights and refugee rights, I cannot help but looking around me and wondering how much better Europe is faring in dealing with its borders, its migration policy, and its international protection obligations.

Looking in the mirror and dealing with the reflection

In the midst of these events, a question kept cropping up in my mind: how different are we, in Europe, really? In Calais, a wall has been built with British funds. In Hungary, a wall prevents refugees from reaching the country and seeking asylum, and all asylum seekers are to be automatically detained, despite not having committed any criminal act. In Greece and Italy, ‘hotspots’ aim to ‘assist frontline Member States which are facing disproportionate migratory pressures at the EU’s external borders’, but the system has been accused of instead ‘abusing, misleading and expelling’. Refugees are reported to be currently dying of cold across Europe. EU resettlement programmes have been accused of cynicism and of being disgraceful. Australian-style proposals to ‘offshore’ EU asylum have been rightly labelled as ‘mass expulsions’ and ‘fiscally irresponsible, morally bankrupt, and increasingly unsustainable politically’. The EU-Turkey agreement to resettle thousands of ‘irregular migrants’ reaching Europe has been widely criticised as a source of human rights violations, and illegal and ineffective. The cooperation agreement with Libya has been criticised for endangering human rights. After only resettling 350 children from Calais to the UK out of the 3,000 expected, the UK will end the Dubs scheme. Europe’s own visa policies have long been accused of being inherently discriminatory. The list is endless.

Other commentators have not failed to notice this shocking state of affairs in our own backyard: Nikolaj Nielsen, for example, writes about European Union’s hypocrisy. This is in no way downplaying the seriousness of Donald Trump’s Executive Order – it is clear that it is a blunt instrument, with no appropriate reasoning sustaining it. And this criticism does not aim either at equalising the way European leaders and Donald Trump deal with such matters – evidently, there are significant differences in form and content. Nonetheless, that does not make European policy unproblematic. In fact, there is much to be done to render European law and policy more humane.

Looking beyond the mirror

This is not to say that European organisations and countries have ignored their human rights and international protection obligations completely. So, credit where it is due. Germany has taken more than its fair share of refugees in the European context. European Union institutions have pursued relentlessly a refugee relocation ‘burden-sharing’ deal on the basis of the principle of solidarity. The European Commission, in particular, has frequently put pressure on Member States to act upon their solidarity obligations in the field of migration. Furthermore, Advocate General Paolo Mengozzi, in an Opinion to the Court of Justice of the EU, has argued in favour of public authorities in the EU having to issue visas on humanitarian grounds to fulfil their international protection obligations. Although the Court of Justice eventually decided against the existence of this obligation under EU law, the debate that this case prompted was very positive. Nonetheless, economic pressures, populist movements across Europe and lack of political solidarity between European countries are preventing us from fulfilling our obligations in a comprehensive and timely fashion. Crucially, any progress we have made on this front is constantly under threat.

So what is preventing us from doing much better? The usual: lack of political will and leadership. As there is no magic solution to improve those, it is important to discuss other possible, more immediate solutions. Although there may be plenty of room for improvement of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), the greatest causes for concern seem to relate to the ways the system is (mis)implemented. For example, the Dublin regulation mechanism does allow for countries to process asylum requests even when they are not the EU member state the claimant first reached (as asserted by the Court of Justice of the EU in NS v SSHD); yet, the Commission has proposed resuming transfers to Greece, ignoring the extremely poor reception conditions in Greece and the need to pursue ‘burden sharing’ policies instead. So, the Dublin regulation mechanism needs to be applied more sensibly. The current CEAS could be complemented with greater economic support for EU member states accepting to process applications of asylum seekers who first reached the EU through another member state – not that they should be doing it for economic benefits alone, as humanitarian and legal grounds should suffice, but greater economic support could help some member states become more supportive of greater application of the principle of solidarity amongst EU member states.

Moreover, if we are not to throw away what CEAS has achieved and simply improve the way it is implemented, we need to ensure that any implementation measure is compliant with the highest human rights standards. Working closely together with the Council of Europe and ensuring absolute respect for the minimum standards established by the European Court of Human Rights is essential in this context. Although accession by the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights is on hold since the Court of Justice of the EU issued its Opinion 2/13, there is still plenty of room for close collaboration with the Commissioner for Human Rights and the other Council of Europe bodies concerned with asylum related matters. This should most likely lead to the suspension of the agreements with Turkey and Libya, mentioned above. Although much more contentious, perhaps the EU should also consider a much stronger stance with regard to member states ferociously undermining asylum-seekers’ right to international protection, such as Hungary (discussed above). As a last resort, this could mean triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union, which could lead to the suspension of the voting rights of the member states in question in the European Union bodies. Admittedly, this is the least palatable measure, especially considering that this provision has never been used and that we are living in the midst of Brexit. The EU would perhaps not wish to poke the pride and sovereignty of any member state, in an attempt to avoid more exits. And yet, in the long run, tolerating club members that are in many respects not worthy of membership to the club only serves to denigrate the reputation of the club itself.

Whether we call it a ‘crisis’ or not, the truth remains that the right to international protection of thousands, if not millions, of individuals is being violated. The EU and its member states need to act swiftly. Focus and resources should be redirected from protecting ‘Fortress Europe’ to safer and more human rights compliant alternatives, such as allowing refugees to fly away from persecution and reach Europe through resettlement programmes. The causes of refugee movements should also be addressed more forcefully, by tackling head-on military conflicts and humanitarian crises pushing people out of their houses. None of this is to soften condemnation of Donald Trump’s immigration ban in all its ugliness. Yet, it is essential that Europeans across the whole continent remain alert and engaged: we are failing in our human rights and international protection obligations as well. Perhaps not to the same extent. Perhaps not so blatantly, arbitrarily or idiotically. But still, we need to do a lot more for all refugees in Europe and those trying to reach Europe, if we wish to be able to criticise other countries with a clear conscience. So, whilst remaining united and active against any measures such as Donald Trump’s immigration ban, let us keep working for a better deal for refugees knocking at our own door as well. Donald Trump’s immigration ban is a massive wake up call to all of us on how human rights anywhere are so fragile. To make it worse, Donald Trump’s extreme right-wing views are offering an extra boost to the already growing Europe’s own extreme right wing movements. Greater humaneness across all policies must be the European answer. Individuals and NGOs around the world have already showed us the power of their voices. Now political leaders across Europe need to also do the same – and in actions, not just words.

Nuno Ferreira is a Professor of Law at the University of Sussex. A previous and shorter version of this blog post has been published in the Forced Migration Forum on 6 March 2017, and can be found on Many thanks to Carmelo Danisi, Moira Dustin, Nina Held, Paul Statham and Alex Aleinikoff for their comments on previous drafts.

Trump is right: stories will dry up if the press can’t use anonymous sources

Judith Townend, University of Sussex and Richard Danbury, De Montfort University

Donald Trump has declared war on anonymous sources and wants to ban their use by journalists. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 24, he said: “You will see stories dry up like you have never seen before.” The Conversation

He’s right. If such a restriction is imposed then stories would dry up. He is very wrong to demand it though. Such a restriction on journalism would have devastating effects for democracy and the flow of information in the public interest, as courts have repeatedly recognised.

But in his first few weeks as president, Trump has shown himself to be no friend to press freedom. Hours after his CPAC speech, the White House barred several news organisations, including the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, the BBC, the Daily Mail and others from an off-camera press briefing, or “gaggle” conducted by press secretary Sean Spicer. Additionally, he announced that he will not attend the White House correspondents’ dinner in April. Building relationships with the press is not a priority for this new administration.

Banning the use of confidential sources denies a core principle reflected in media ethics codes from around the world and flies in the face of the First Amendment to the United States constitution and rights to free speech. Protecting journalists’ confidential sources is deemed essential to freedom of expression, public interest journalism and holding power to account. It is held as sacred, to be interpreted rigidly – even in the face of criminal prosecution.

The principle is deep-rooted and recognised in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (which has found against the UK on this issue, on more than one occasion), formal commitments by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the European parliament.

But successfully protecting a confidential source has always required a careful balance. Protections exist in law but they must be skilfully navigated and practical steps taken to maintain confidential communication between journalist and source. This careful balance was never easy to achieve, but it is becoming increasingly difficult, as we show in our recent report “Protecting Whistleblowers and Sources in a Digital Age” – the result of a research initiative supported by Guardian News and Media, publisher of the Guardian and the Observer newspapers.

Our research presents the views and experiences of 25 investigative journalists, specialist lawyers, academics and representatives from NGOs, shared at a meeting hosted by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in September 2016.

We identify that a powerful combination of legal and technological threats now jeopardise source confidentiality. A journalist may assure a source of anonymity but that promise is not an easy one to keep unless the source has taken precautions when making contact from the very beginning of their communication.

Even for a source such as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, well versed in encryption and security techniques, maintaining confidential channels of communication was tricky when he decided to leak documents revealing the nature and scale of the NSA’s international surveillance programmes in 2013. Most sources may not take important precautions, nor wish to disclose their identity, as Snowden eventually did. They won’t necessarily have the technical ability of Snowden, the mind-set of Deep Throat, nor necessarily even think of themselves as a source or a whistleblower.

Blowing the whistle

In tandem, legal threats abound. The government has claimed, during the passage of the Investigatory Powers Bill in 2015-16 and in response to our report, that it has strengthened protections for whistleblowers in legislation, but we remain unconvinced.

The Investigatory Powers Act was an opportunity to create a robust and independent process for authorising the state’s interception of journalistic material. In the event, despite the introduction of a judicial approval stage, journalists and their sources are left vulnerable with no requirement for notification to the affected party – and protections that fall short of their equivalent in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984.

More recently, the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 posed a new threat. In its original form, Part V introduces new criminal offences for disclosure of public authority and government data with no specified protection for public interest journalism.

Thanks to the intervention of the National Union of Journalists, the Media Lawyers’ Association and the News Media Association, the government has introduced an amendment which offers a defence for public interest journalism.

Nonetheless, there is still a question mark about the effectiveness of this defence and the extent to which it will protect journalists and their confidential sources. How will it be interpreted by the courts?

It is a thorny legal problem about what should be considered as “journalism”, and so it is difficult to predict who – or what activity – will benefit from this defence. Additionally, even if journalists are better protected in law, we must not neglect the question of whether sources and whistleblowers are adequately protected.

In the public interest

The latest issue to garner attention is the Law Commission’s new consultation on the protection of official data. Preliminary proposals on reform to the law on official secrets and espionage have been severely criticised by a number of media organisations and civil society organisations.

The Law Commission has indicated that these are merely proposals – and they, to a large extent, are an attempt to codify and update existing laws, but these points do not alleviate our concern about their effect on whistleblowing and source protection.

A consolidating act that replicates the deficiencies of already existing law would be no improvement on the existing law – and the absence of a public interest defence in actions that relate to whistleblowing of officially secret material is a significant omission.

And as Trump’s comments at CPAC indicate, a larger sociopolitical threat looms. The new president takes an unprecedented approach to his dealings with the media and his use of social media. Events – such as the disclosures leading to the resignation of US national security adviser Michael Flynn – highlight the value and importance to democratic debate of whistleblowing in the public interest.

This demonstrates quite how important it is that journalists who receive such material are able to protect their sources. If this were not the case, the public would not see material that helps provide a clearer and accurate picture of important contemporary events – particularly vital when the US administration continues to express such overt hostility to the mass media.

Judith Townend, Lecturer in media and information law, University of Sussex and Richard Danbury, Principal Lecturer in Investigative Journalism, De Montfort University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.