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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
Cook defends human rights record
Robin Cook
Robin Cook: "We have done a lot"
The government has defended its record on boosting human rights around the world.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said Britain would continue to pursue a "principled and practical" human rights policy.

Our pursuit of human rights is both principled and practical

Robin Cook
But he admitted there were areas where attempts to bring about improvements had failed, notably in Burma and China.

Mr Cook has been criticised by human rights groups for failing in his promise to bring an "ethical dimension" to foreign affairs.

But speaking to an audience of campaigners and diplomats in London, the minister robustly stood by the government's achievements.

And he pledged to change the culture of the Foreign Office to make its commitment to human rights "irreversible".

The department was accused of double standards by Amnesty International last year for placing commercial and political interests ahead of human rights.

There was also criticism from the cross-party Commons foreign affairs select committee for the failure to deliver "meaningful results" with a softly-softly approach to human rights in China.

'No conflict'

But Mr Cook has hit back, arguing that there is no conflict between ethics and fighting Britain's corner.

He said: "National interest is promoted, not hindered, by a commitment to human rights.

"Governments which are democratically accountable will be more reliable partners for peace.

"Governments which respect freedom of expression will be more honest as trading partners.

"That is why our pursuit of human rights is both principled and practical."

The government was promoting human rights and economic development as "one single joined-up project", he said.

UK 'done a lot'

On Britain's efforts abroad, the foreign secretary recognised that there had been failures.

But he said: "The reality that we cannot do everything does not free us from our duty to do what we can.

"And we have done a lot."

Mr Cook cited Britain's interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo as successes, and Burma and China as cases where "our pressure has not yet produced the changes which all of us would like to see".

He also pledged to continue with the controversial policy of "critical dialogue" on human rights with the Chinese authorities.

The foreign secretary did not refer to the so-called "ethical dimension" to his policies, which has brought sustained attacks from campaigners who argue it is being compromised by some arms deals involving British firms.

Lord Justice Scott
Lord Justice Scott: "disappointed" laws have not been changed.
But Mr Cook defended his record on arms exports, saying: "The British government now produces the fullest and most transparent annual report on arms exports of any European nation".

The UK government would be pressing for a new United Nations fund to support the collection and destruction of surplus arms in return for development aid, he said.

And it would support restrictions on the export of military firearms to non-state rebel groups.

Earlier this year Lord Justice Scott, author of the landmark Scott report into the arms to Iraq scandal, attacked the government's failure to keep its promise to enact laws regulating the arms trade.

It is almost five years since he recommended changes to arms export laws, some of which date back to 1939 and protect contracts from parliamentary scrutiny.

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See also:

22 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Scott attacks arms trade reform failure
11 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Tories demand Cook inquiry
13 Mar 01 | Euro-glossary
European Court of Human Rights
29 Nov 00 | UK Politics
MPs damn UK-China 'dialogue'
20 Jul 00 | UK Politics
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29 Apr 98 | Labour - One Year On
Ethical foreign policy
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