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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Confessions of a British diplomat

By Paul Reynolds
BBC world affairs correspondent

Should an ambassador speak out over human rights even if this upsets his or her own government?

The question has been posed by the dismissal from his post as British ambassador to Uzbekistan of Craig Murray, whose disagreements with his own government about how to handle human rights abuses by his host government have become very public.

Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray
Craig Murray was dismissed from his post in Uzbekistan this week

The answer from the traditionalists is very simple. There are civil service rules that govern conduct. Diplomats represent the elected government and if they disagree with policy, they can say so, but it has to be in private.

If they disagree to the extent that they feel they cannot do their job, they can ask for a transfer or in the final analysis they can resign. It is up to government ministers to justify the policies in parliament and in public.

A recent resignation from the Foreign Office was that of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who left her job as deputy legal adviser because she disagreed with the reasons put forward to justify the war against Iraq.

Patrick Nixon, who recently retired from the Foreign Office after serving as high commissioner in Zambia and ambassador in Abu Dhabi, said: "If you disagree with your own government, there are procedures.

"You can take a complaint right up to the top of the Foreign Office and from there to the Cabinet Office."

Diplomatic rows

"But you can have your say in private. Telegrams from ambassadors can be very plain and direct.

"Having a row with a foreign government is never a good idea unless you have the support of your own. This happened to me in Zambia in 1996 when we withheld aid worth 25m.

"The British minister concerned - Lynda Chalker - actually came out and told the president that I was acting on the British government's behalf. I was public enemy number one in Zambia but she supported me."

I wrestle with my conscience greatly over whether I caused that boy's horrible death
Craig Murray

Patrick Nixon, who was known for speaking his own mind to colleagues and superiors, used a word which many other professionals resort to in this context - whether someone's conduct is "effective."

"You can often only be effective if you act with other governments. We did so in Zambia," he said.

Judged by this approach, Craig Murray has broken the golden rule of diplomacy and has ceased to be effective. The last straw for his bosses came when a memo he wrote to London complaining about its attitude was printed in the Financial Times.


He denies having leaked it himself, but he has confirmed that what was said in the telegram is indeed his view.

Whatever the source of the leak (and there are conspiracy theorists about who think it convenient for the Foreign Office to get this out so they could lever Mr Murray out) the revelation of his opinion has exposed London to the risk of being ignored by Uzbekistan.

"Why should we worry about the Brits, they don't care," would be the Uzbek attitude, as it was put to me by one source.

That is why the stated reason for his dismissal is said by the Foreign Office to be "operational" not "political." An ineffective ambassador is not an asset.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov has clamped down on all dissidents

I am quite sure that there is not only irritation with Mr Murray in the Foreign Office but anger as well. His personal ambitions are being called into question.

Mr Murray incidentally has broken another civil service rule, albeit in this affair a relatively minor one. But it shows how there has been a complete breakdown of relations between himself and the Foreign Office.

By giving an interview to the BBC Today Programme on Friday morning, after his dismissal, he broke the rule that civil servants have to get permission to do such interviews. He did not, I am told, get such permission.

For his part, Mr Murray is unapologetic.

He has seen appalling evidence of torture and murder and feels that the war on terror declared by President Bush has led to a blind eye being turned in Uzbekistan where the authoritarian President Islam Karimov has clamped down not only on Islamic dissent but on all dissent.


One of his most searing memories is that of being told that, six hours after he met a professor of literature from Samarkand who had complained about the torture of dissidents, a body was dumped on the man's doorstep. It was his grandson. One arm appeared to have been boiled until the skin fell off.

"I wrestle with my conscience greatly over whether I caused that boy's horrible death," Mr Murray said later.

His view now is that the Foreign Office is being "politicised" and that his dismissal is indeed for political reasons, because he blew the whistle on the practice of accepting intelligence from the Uzbeks which they got from torture.

As often with people who speak out like this (and there have not been that many in the tight little world of professional diplomacy), personal traits and antipathies enter into the fray.

The Foreign Office at one stage alleged that Mr Murray was acting improperly with young local women in the embassy, allegations later withdrawn.

He in turn was angry at this attack on his personal integrity and so a vicious circle of bad faith was created.

These rows sometimes obscure the issues which are real ones for any diplomatic service.

These days, in the war on terror, the pressure on diplomats is greater than ever. Many western governments lay great stress on human rights in their foreign policies but these obligations often clash with the needs of realpolitik.

An ambassador has to weigh up whether his or her personal views outweigh the necessities of government.

Analysis: Human rights in Uzbekistan
15 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
US probes Uzbek torture allegations
27 May 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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