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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 18:26 GMT
Foreign policy

Labour came to power in 1997 with bold talk of an ethical dimension to its foreign policy - but what has been delivered?


In the 18th century administration of Earl Chatham, better known as Pitt the Elder, foreign policy meant you either won or lost in a great international game for influence and control.

In the dying days of the 20th century, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told an audience in the building named after the former prime minister, Chatham House, that those views no longer held sway.

Governments the world over recognised that unilateral self-interest could sometimes be counter productive. Enlightened self-interest was the new foreign policy.

The speech was leapt on by the media and by government critics who described it as the final nail in the coffin of an "ethical foreign policy" trumpeted in 1997.

But was that really the case?


Robin Cook never used the words "ethical foreign policy".

But a major speech within weeks of the 1997 election victory set the tone for what Labour said it intended - an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy.

It is not acceptable to try to evade the obligation [to human rights] by pleading that there is too much evil in the world for us to put it right

Robin Cook, 1997
Labour's introduction of an ethical dimension emerged after the Arms to Iraq affair - and a report into the then Conservative government's involvement in military equipment sales to Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War.

This led to the opposition accusing ministers of running a foreign and trade policy mired in dirty dealings at the cost of their responsibilities to the international community.

Unveiling the new approach in July 1997, Robin Cook said: "The right to enjoy our freedoms comes with the obligation to support the human rights of others.

"It is not acceptable to try to evade that obligation by pleading that there is too much evil in the world for us to put it right."

It was music to the ears of the international human rights lobby.


Prime Minister Tony Blair created a new Cabinet post for international development (see separate brief), while the Foreign Office said it would produce an annual human rights report.

Labour had already made new arms control legislation a manifesto pledge - more on that later - and announced it would sponsor an EU arms control code.

The government has since been praised by the likes of Amnesty International for its role in moving towards an international court to pursue those guilty of crimes against humanity.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton talked of a new doctrine of intervention in the name of human rights in the midst of the Kosovo crisis.


Since 1997, the government's ethical stance has been buffeted by events which, its critics say, show that its lofty ideals were based more on naive hope than reality.

A spot of bother? Foreign policy hotspots 1997 - 2000
Hawk jets to Indonesia
Arms to Zimbabwe
Ilusu dam rows
Jiang Zemin visit
The Pinochet affair
Barely had the ink dried on the FCO's new mission statement than the government was being asked tough questions on why Hawk jets were still being sent to Indonesia.

Human rights groups lambasted the government's handling of the visit of China's President Jiang Zemin, claiming that it had pressured the police to detain protesters.

The government denied that allegation but protesters demanded to know what had happened to the ethical dimension in dealings with one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Those accusations grew when it emerged that military equipment deals with Zimbabwe were being honoured in spite of its military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Campaigners criticised Tony Blair over his relations with Russia's President Putin, the man behind a highly controversial second military intervention in Chechnya.

And away from the FCO, Home Secretary Jack Straw proved that in politics you can't please everybody all the time as he was attacked from all sides over his handling of Spain's attempts to extradite Chile's General Pinochet from the UK.

And there were allegations of Whitehall rows over government support for British commercial involvement in Turkey's controversial Ilusu dam project.


Five years have elapsed since the report into the Arms to Iraq affair, which exposed flaws in the arrangements for arms exports.

The report's author, Lord Justice Scott, has spoken out, saying that it was "regrettable and disappointing" that there had been no action other than the current draft legislation.

What this has revealed, say government critics, is that the ethical dimension is stuck in the middle of Whitehall wrangling over whether human rights or trading relations have supremacy.

At the heart of this controversy and others is British industry abroad - and most significantly - the arms industry.

The Defence Manufacturer's Association says that 10% of the manufacturing base depends on the arms industry.

Turning to exports, official figures show that in 1998-99, 90,000 British direct and indirect jobs relied on the export industry (down from 130,000 in the previous 12 months).

Defence export orders in 1999 were worth around 4.25bn while a further 5bn of future orders were also placed, says the DMA.

Arms industry critics say that sales to dubious regimes account for a declining portion of these sales.

So why should they not be banned altogether?

Labour in government has not escaped the criticism of MPs on this issue.

A joint report by four Commons committees concluded that the government had not met its "debt of honour" to, at the very least, lay legislation before Parliament on post-Scott reforms, as had been pledged.

The MPs criticised the government's decision to allow arms to go to Zimbabwe in 1998 and 1999, saying that the government's response on this particular issue had been "factually inaccurate".


Robin Cook has since stressed that his foreign policy should be seen as "diplomacy for democracy" - prompting allegations that he had dumped the ethical element.

[Not talking to criticised regimes] may leave us with clean hands but is unlikely to provide their people with better rights

Robin Cook, 2000
In the foreign policy speech in January last year at Chatham House, Mr Cook talked of "critical engagement" with other nations.

"Critical engagement ... may require involvement without illusions about the regimes with which we negotiate," he said.

"Such dialogues can be uncomfortable to those who believe we best preserve the purity of our commitment to human rights by refusing to talk to the very regimes that need to hear our message.

"Such a policy may leave us with clean hands but is unlikely to provide their people with better rights."

The government points to its sending of troops to Sierra Leone as a prime example of this policy in action, backing up its support of ordinary people's rights with tough - but honourable - action where necessary.

So is this enlightened self-interest any different to what came before 1997?

For the government to show that individual policy decisions are best suited to achieving its human rights goals is more difficult than to demonstrate adherence to a rigid set of human rights principles

Foreign Affairs Committee Human Rights Report, 2000
The Conservatives say not.

The former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that it was a clear retreat from pursuing and ethical dimension.

"What the foreign secretary is saying is that when it is in our national interests, we will pursue a policy based on ethical considerations. When it's not practical no-one should expect us to.

"That's not dramatically different from what all previous government of all parties have done over the years."

The Conservatives have since gone further and called for a Foreign, Commonwealth and Trade Office to focus diplomacy on the benefits to be gained for British commerce.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat's foreign affairs spokesman, has been one of the most scathing critics of what he regards as Labour's bungled attempts to introduce an ethical dimension.

"Liberal Democrats in their first months in government would not have continued the supply of Hawk aircraft to Indonesia while East Timor was being ravaged," he said.

"Transparency and public accountability in arms exports are an essential feature of a foreign policy with an ethical dimension. governments with nothing to hide have nothing to fear."


The verdict of others is mixed.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee's conclusion last year was that the government had adopted a "pragmatic approach" that sought results rather than adhering dogmatically to immovable principles.

But in giving the government a qualified pat on the back, the committee said that ministers had also dug themselves into a hole.

They said that the FCO's "case-by-case" approach to human rights policy "could allow the government to disguise inconsistency as necessary realism".

For its part, Amnesty International says that whatever the government's actual position, "ethical foreign policy has become both a yardstick against which to measure their progress and, for their opponents, just a stick with which to beat them."


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