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Monday, 17 April, 2000, 20:23 GMT 21:23 UK
When to talk, when to walk
Pinochet, Putin and Mugabe
Talk or turn away. This is the dilemma facing any government hoping to curtail human rights abuses in a foreign state.

The visit of Russia's President Vladimir Putin to the UK very publicly illustrates this foreign policy tightrope.

Russia is widely suspected of committing atrocities in the strife-torn republic of Chechnya while trying to suppress rebel forces in the region.
Putin and Blair
On the up: Britain chooses to "engage" Russia

The Kremlin has so far seemed impervious to the growing international concern over its conduct of the war.

Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was recently frustrated in her attempts to investigate goings-on in Southern Russia.

However, while the Council of Europe has offered Russia the stark choice of reining in its forces or facing suspension, the UK has opted for "critical engagement".

Margot Light, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, says there is no consensus over how to treat errant sovereign states.

Silent sanction

"It's such a polarised argument. It's impossible to say what works best."

Ms Light says "moral disapproval" can be used as a sanction.

"A government might distance itself from an offending country in the hope its disapproval would matter enough that they consider modifying their behaviour."
Russian troops in Chechnya
War of words: Chechen conflict has drawn criticism

Apartheid South Africa was subject to just such "moral disapproval", yet Ms Light suggests the fall of the white minority regime may have been prompted by financial rather than political or cultural sanctions.

Ms Light also warns that stern words and actions can often serve to strengthen the position of a regime at home.

"In Russia's anti-Western atmosphere, the approval of Western leaders is usually the kiss of death for a politician."

This is not only true for Russia. The UK Government has been performing a similar balancing act in its recent dealings with Zimbabwe.

Talking up a storm

The African state's main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, called on the UK to tone down its criticism of President Robert Mugabe to prevent him "being made a martyr in the eyes of Zimbabwe".

For his part Mr Mugabe has denounced British criticism of the current farm squatter crisis as "trying to teach us how to run our country".
President Jiang Zemin
Cold shoulder: China's Jiang Zemin had a mixed welcomed

Philippe Sands, professor of international law at the University of London and a member of Cherie Booth QC's Matrix Chamber, says despite the degrees of dialogue with questionable governments, there are no closed doors.

"There's no such thing as complete isolation. Even when governments say they are not talking there remain links and informal contacts."

Mr Sands says cutting off dialogue with world figures like Mr Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, whose visit to the UK last year also prompted criticism, is a "non-starter".

"The crucial fact is how you talk," says Mr Sands.

Talk the talk

Urmi Shah from Human Rights Watch agrees: "If there is going to be engagement, it has to be based on principles.

"Human rights issues have to be raised in the strongest possible terms and at every possible opportunity. Concrete assurances have to be given and a time frame agreed."
Blair and Putin
PM Blair pledges "engagement", not "isolation"

Those expecting frank and public criticism of nations such as China and Russia will be disappointed by the "coded" language of government speeches and press conferences, says Mr Sands.

"Governments are sovereign and don't do that to each other."

Yet Mr Sands admits that even this general rule has its limits.

"When it comes to smaller countries there tends to be a lot more bossing around and public humiliations."

Double standard

Mr Sands suggests a "double standard" exists, saying that General Pinochet would not have been held in the UK had he come from a more influential nation than Chile.

In a joint press conference with President Putin, Prime Minister Tony Blair explained his decision to initiate a bilateral relationship between Downing Street and the Kremlin despite worries over human rights.
General Pinochet
Did Pinochet fall foul of "double standards"?

"I believe the best way to register those concerns and get results is to engage with Russia, not isolate Russia."

Amnesty International's Colin Brook says provided human rights questions are an integral part of talks and "not tacked on afterwards", then dialogue is always preferable to isolation.

While it could be argued that Mr Putin's London visit could allow some at home to conclude the West's criticism of Russia is at best half-hearted, the trip has another side-effect.

Mr Brook notes Mr Putin's presence in the UK has pushed the question of Chechnya back up the political agenda, forcing Mr Putin and Mr Blair to address the issue publicly.

"It has given Amnesty International a chance to put our case across in a very direct way."

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See also:

17 Apr 00 | UK
Putin meets British PM
16 Apr 00 | Europe
Putin flies into legal battle
07 Apr 00 | Europe
EU keeps pressure on Putin
14 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Cook seeks Zimbabwe solution
19 Oct 99 | UK Politics
Opinion: Building relations with China
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