What's stopping Queen Elizabeth from seizing power?

Queen Elizabeth attended a cabinet meeting today, becoming the first British monarch to do so since the American revolution and receiving a set of placemats in thanks. (The Foreign Office was a bit classier, naming part of Antarctica after her.) As BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt explains, this move is not entirely uncontroversial:

For constitutional purists this was a mildly troubling encounter which muddied the waters between a hereditary monarch and an elected accountable cabinet. For many others, it was a unique moment which probably hasn't been seen in peacetime for three centuries.

For the Queen, it was a reminder of where the power lies and how much has been lost from the position she occupies. Her prerogatives or privileges are now pretty much limited to appointing a prime minister and dissolving Parliament. In both cases, she's severely limited by constitutional conventions.

This did make me wonder, though, is there anything actually stopping the queen from taking over and ruling as an iron-fisted tyrant if she wanted to? (Not that I'm saying she does.)

Well, if she was plotting something, she probably missed her shot. Until last year, the Queen monarch technically had the right to unilaterally dismiss a prime minister or dissolve parliament -- though it hadn't been done since the 19th century -- but the Fixed-term Parliament Act passed in 2011 set five-year terms for parliament which can only be shortened by an act of parliament such as a vote of no confidence or a motion for an early election. 

Some have argued that if the monarch has the right to refuse a request by the prime minister to dissolve parliament -- and the governor generals of Canada and South Africa have done so in the 20th century -- but that's meant more as a check on the prime minister's authority and would seem an impractical method for Elizabeth's (theoretical) bid for world domination.

The queen is still required to assent to all laws passed by parliament, though this is treated as a formality. The last monarch to withold assent was Queen Anne who blocked a bill settling militia in Scotland in 1707. In 1829, King George IV threatened to withold assent from a bill granting Catholics the right to sit in parliament but backed down after this prime minister threated to resign. 

Royals do apparently have some control over bills that directly affect their interests -- last year, the Guardian reported that ministers had been obliged to seek Prince Charles' permission on at least a dozen bills affecting his commercial interests. 

If Elizabeth were planning a controverisal and constitutionally dubious power grab, it feels like she probably would have done it by now. And given how unpopular Prince Charles' attempts to meddle in politics have proven, he probably doesn't have the political capital for it. Of course, William and his unborn heir could still attempt to usher in a new era of absolute monarchy, but they'll have their work cut out for them. 

Jeremy Selwyn - WPA Pool/Getty Images


Should we expect the ICC to always get convictions?

The International Criminal Court issued its second verdict in the case of Congolese militia leader Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, and to the disappointment of many, it's an acquittal:

Delivering only its second verdict in 10 years of existence, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Ngudjolo not guilty of ordering killings during a war in Ituri district in 2003. In its first ever verdict, delivered in July, the court had jailed an opposing commander, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for 14 years.

Ngudjolo was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including overseeing killings, rape and pillage. His prosecutors will appeal the verdict and, though the court said Ngudjolo should be freed in the meantime, it was not immediately clear that he could leave the ICC detention facility for now.

In the wake of the verdict, the court is coming under fire from some of the trial's most ardent supporters: 

"The people trusted the International Criminal Court more than our national courts," said Emmanuel Folo of Ituri human rights group Equitas. "After this decision, for those who were victims of this, there is a feeling of disappointment. The victims feel forgotten, abandoned by international justice."

Human Rights Watch felt the scope of the prosecution should have been broadened

Human Rights Watch Senior DRC Researcher, Anneke Van Woudenberg, said there were "clear weaknesses" in this case.

"Remember that in a place like Ituri, there were multiple massacres that occurred over a number of years.  What the judges said today was that they could not beyond reasonable doubt be sure that for this particular massacre, Mathieu Ngudjolo had been the leader of the group at the time. But they did say, they were clear, that Mathieu Ngudjolo had been a key leader of the militia later on and that he did hold command responsibility in the months that followed," said Van Woudenberg. "So it should give some pause for thought to the prosecution that building cases which are so limited on the base of only one massacre without more broadly looking at what happened in the context of Ituri is dangerous and doesn't give us good justice." 

I understand the frustration here, but I do think there's a danger in human rights groups decrying trial as a failure because a suspect was not convicted. One of the main criticisms leveled at the ICC is that it is a European-based organization that has exclusively convicted Africans. Despite Fatou Bensouda of Gambia's role as chief prosecutor, it's not hard to understand why many see it as a forum for western nations to pass judgment on African crimes. Calls to broaden the scope of prosecutions to make it easier to ensure convictions seem unlikely to combat the impression that the court's proceedings are politically motivated, or a form of victor's justice.

In any fair court, defendants -- includings ones who are almost certainly guilty -- are going to sometimes be acquitted for reasons ranging from lack of evidence to prosecutorial incompetence. There are certainly reasonable calls being made to reform the court, and mistakes may have been made in this prosecution but if these are to be more than show trials meant to give a formal veneer to the widespread opinion of the international community, we're going to have to accept that sometimes the bad guys will get away with it.