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Labour - One Year On Wednesday, 29 April, 1998, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Ethical foreign policy
By Nicholas Witchell, Diplomatic Correspondent

The new Foreign Secretary talked of an ethical dimension to foreign policy. But how could foreign policy be ethical in a country with a thriving arms industry? What happens to contracts that are already agreed? How would Britain's behaviour fit in with other European countries? Robin Cook raised all these questions at the start of his term in office - Nicholas Witchell analyses how far Mr Cook has answered those questions, what action has been taken, and how far Mr Cook can go.

It was an occasion when senior diplomats looked on in amazement. The gilded splendour of the Foreign Office's Locarno Room was a swirl of loud music and flashing video screens.

It was the launch of the new Labour government's "new" foreign policy, complete with added-value ethics.

The Labour party manifesto 1997 had said: "We will make the protection and promotion of human rights a central part of our foreign policy."

Ethics vs commercial interests

So, 12 days after the election, diplomats and journalists found themselves at the Locarno Room light show to hear Foreign Secretary Robin Cook present his "Mission Statement".

In his accompanying speech, Mr Cook uttered the phrase upon which the edifice of an "ethical foreign policy" has been constructed: "Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension."

In other words ethical content would be just one part of the guiding spirit of British foreign policy. But what how would this "ethical dimension" compare with Britain's tradition of pragmatism in foreign policy? Critically, how would it fare head-to-head with the trading and commercial dimensions of foreign policy?

There were no clear answers at the time and the Conservatives said the only innovation was making great public statements about it.

Fair? Up to a point, as the past year appears to demonstrate.

A farewell to arms?

For Britain there is one area where a foreign policy with claims of a moral basis is going to be tested severely - the sale of arms.

To put this in perspective: the UK is second only to the US in its arms exports, with business worth more than 5bn a year. Nearly one quarter of the global arms trade originates in the UK. Defence exports provide employment for 150,000 people.

After coming to office, Mr Cook issued new criteria for granting arms export licences. For example, they promised not to issue a licence "if there is a clearly identifiable risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression."

However, in the very same document - under "The UK's National Interests" - is an undertaking that "full weight" shall be given to protecting "the UK's essential strategic industrial base", and to the effect that arms licences could have on "the UK's economic, financial and commercial interests."

Arms exports

The government had an immediate opportunity to demonstrate its new policy - whether to sell Hawk jets to Indonesia, aircraft which campaigners insisted had been used by the authorities against the people of East Timor - a claim the Foreign Office repeatedly said it had been unable to substantiate.

Robin Cook decided the sale should proceed, saying he could not revoke existing contracts. The government also allowed existing contracts to proceed for armoured cars and water cannons. Labour MPs who had campaigned passionately against the deal were outraged.

Labour MP Ann Clwyd chairs the parliamentary human rights group. She conceded to me at the end of last year that the idea of an ethical foreign policy appeared to owe rather more to skilful presentation than to substance. She said that since coming to power, Labour had turned down only four arms licences for Indonesia, while granting 22.

Add to that the fact that British arms exports to countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have continued without apparent interruption and it is possible to understand why Ms Clwyd and others are increasingly suspicious that Robin Cook's good intentions have been hamstrung by pressure from Downing Street and the arms industry.

EU Code of conduct

Another significant feature of Mr Cook's more ethical approach has been to attempt to agree with our EU partners a European Code of Conduct. The aim would be to ensure that if one country turned down an arms deal on moral grounds, no other EU country would take it up.

A worthy objective, except that in February leading agencies such as Oxfam and Amnesty International denounced a draft of the new code as "inadequate" and full of loopholes.

Yet before this analysis sounds too cynical, it is fair to note that however ambiguous are the new British criteria for arms licences, and however imperfect the proposed European Code of Conduct on arms sales, they do represent movement in what might be described as an ethical direction.

Ethics in action

In addition, Labour has:

  • Banned the use and manufacture of anti-personnel landmines,
  • Worked with other countries to agree an international treaty to ban landmines,
  • Created the Department for International Development, which has more clearly separated aid from trade and targeted Britain's overseas aid on reducing poverty,
  • Increased support for non-governmental organisations working in the human rights field,
  • Shifted the emphasis of the UK Military Training Scheme to concentrate on the training of foreign soldiers in the principles of human rights and the civilian accountability of the military,
  • Undertaken to produce an Annual Report on Britain's activities in the promotion of human rights.

Within the Foreign Office there were serious doubts about launching with such a fanfare a policy which diplomats knew would be impossible to deliver. Indeed, in the conclusion to his first major speech as Foreign Secretary, "Human Rights Into a New Century", Robin Cook said he did not wish to disguise the limits to what could be achieved.

Those limitations remain highly visible: in countries such as Bosnia, Nigeria and China.

Yet despite those and other limitations, it is possible, I think, for Labour credibly to claim it has started to deliver what Robin Cook promised last May: an ethical dimension, though not an entirely ethical purpose to British foreign policy.

Links to more Labour - One Year On stories are at the foot of the page.

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