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Arms to Africa row Tuesday, 28 July, 1998, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Cook wants no 'scapegoats' over arms-to-Africa
Robin Cook
Cook: taking steps to ensure a similar situation will not happen again
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is urging MPs not to destroy the careers of civil servants criticised in Monday's report into the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair.

But Conservatives are criticising the report as a "whitewash", describing it as being "a report by civil servants, for civil servants, about civil servants".

Mr Cook told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee he believed it was time to draw a line under the series of claims surrounding which officials knew what and when about a UN sanctions breaking arms shipment to Sierra Leone by the private military firm Sandline International.

But he also said: "I do think we need to have an official whose sole function is to make sure that sanctions are enforced and that there is full awareness across the Foreign Office about an embargo."

'No need to scapegoat officials'

Mr Cook said he accepted fully the findings of the report by Sir Thomas Legg which criticised Foreign Office staff. But the foreign secretary defended them saying:

"Officials were working at or beyond their capacity. In these circumstances, I don't think that these errors justify formal disciplinary proceedings and that is why I am taking none.

"If I had wished to scapegoat officials I would have initiated some follow-up to it," he said.

"None of those involved in this will have a block on their career as a result of this. Many of these officials are young and have a career in front of them at the Foreign Office."

Tories not convinced

Committee member, Tory MP David Wilshire commented on the report after the hearings saying: "At best it is a whitewash, at worst it is a smokescreen for who knows what."

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, also insists that the report leaves questions unanswered about the role of ministers in "playing down" the range of the UN arms embargo.

Mr Cook's appearance at the Committee follows the publication of the report into the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair which criticised Foreign Office officials but cleared ministers of "any scandal".

New measures enacted

Before the hearing closed Mr Cook laid out several measures designed to ensure that a similar episode will not happen in the future.

From now on, no government officials will be able to hold meetings with private military firms like Sandline International without informing a senior official.

Written notes will be kept of such meetings and any point of contention will be raised in a writing and sent to the military firm.

Mr Cook said: "That should protect us against a repetition of what has happened."

See also:

25 Jul 98 | Arms to Africa row
27 Jul 98 | Arms to Africa row
25 Jul 98 | Arms to Africa row
27 Jul 98 | Arms to Africa row
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