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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Foreign policy - can it be ethical?

Labour came to office in 1997 saying it wanted to bring an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. Is this something achievable in government or are the realities more complex?

Within months of speaking of ethics, the government was criticised for selling Hawk jets to Indonesia and then attacked for its handling of the visit to the UK of the Chinese president.

Labour has created a cabinet post for the International Development Secretary and launched an annual Human Rights Approach.

The Conservatives want the Foreign Office to take on a trade role to promote British business abroad, while the Liberal Democrats call for more controls over the export of arms and say foreign policy must put human rights and good governance at the top of its agenda.

So can the Foreign Office act "ethically" in all countries - and what is its role when promoting British business and interests abroad?

Have Your Say


Forget ethics, what matters is making money.

Neil, London, England
Forget ethics, what matters is making money. Labour has already wasted billions cancelling 3rd world debt. That money could have gone to our lowering our taxes.
Neil, London, England

All those expressing "shock", "horror" and "disgusting" at a country's foreign policy might be a little less sanctimonious when they're out of work! We live in the real world, guys, and being noble might make you feel good, but it doesn't pay the mortgage! Grow up!
Mark M. Newdick, USA/UK


The same two or three multinationals seem to benefit from construction projects in countries that have a poor human rights record.

Martin, London, UK
Whilst I am a lifelong Labour party supporter, the no show of Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy will be seen as a big minus for this government. I would say that Mr Jenkins' comments have hit the nail on the head; the ECGD seem to be acting as a loose cannon , entirely off their own backs with seemingly no recourse to Government policy . I also think it is very interesting that it seems to be the same two or three multinationals who benefit from the ECGD underwriting huge construction projects in countries that have a poor human rights record. The likes of Tarmac and Balfour Beaty always seem to benefit from what is essentially tax payer's money, and you have to wonder about the influence these companies may be having on government policy.
Martin, London, UK

A fundamental aspect of an ethical foreign policy and how we treat fellow humans in other countries is our response to asylum seekers. For too long the tabloid newspapers and the Tory party have set the parameters of the debate on this issue by bandying about terms like 'illegal immigrant', 'bogus asylum seeker' and 'economic migrant' - without ever properly defining them - as a smokescreen for a xenophobic and self-centred little-Englander attitude. It's time to redefine the debate about immigration so that the prejudice of some doesn't ruin the hopes of those without opportunities to improve their and their families' lives, or who are denied their fundamental human rights in their homelands.
Peter Darch, Oxford, UK

Any ethical foreign policy pretensions this Government have adopted have been absolute nonsense. Of course it's possible to have an ethical foreign policy; as the issues surrounding asylum seekers prove we do not live in a vacuum - there is a reaction to every reaction. Maybe we should all think about why this government is subsidising the Illisu dam project in Turkey when thousands of Kurdish refugees turn up at Dover rather than blaming the people it affects !
Chris Welch, Sheffield, UK

The issue of international justice is uppermost in my mind. Who will work for fair international trade rules? Who will double our international aid to the internationally agreed 0.7% GDP? How is third world debt to be relieved, and how should HIPC be followed up?
Pete Bowler, Knutsford, England


There has to be ethics in a foreign policy. They should determine who we sell weapons to

Phil, Shrewsbury, England
There has to be ethics in a foreign policy. To be completely self-motivated will lead to trouble. Ethics sends aid, and resources to human tragedies. Ethics could determine involvement or non-participation in conflict, and ethics should determine who we sell weapons to.
Phil, Shrewsbury, England

I don't think that Labour can talk about ethical foreign policy as long as they continue to side with the USA over issues like military and financial aid for Israel, and the National Missile Defence program (son of star wars). America under Bush is slipping back into a state of arrogance and belligerency, and we should play no part in Bush's oil-money sponsored war games.
Craig, Stirling

The foreign office is already involved in promoting British Trade, they should spend more time looking after the interests of the British citizen abroad and in promoting Britain as a destination for tourism and investment, and less on investing British money overseas
David, Saudi Arabia

I think our role is limited to backing the USA up!
Seth Black, London


When promoting British business and interests abroad we should value people's lives more than the contents of the shareholders' pockets.

Jeff Jenkins, Southampton, UK
Every country abuses human rights to some extent and -while this does not make it right-we must also consider that pursuing an ethical foreign policy has the potential to lose more allies than we gain. The Foreign Office should be doing a much better job of judging who we deal with and should refuse to deal with anyone with doubtful ethical purposes. The ECGD should similarly not fund overseas projects (such as the proposed funding of the Ilisu dam in Turkey) where human rights records are less than adequate. When promoting British business and interests abroad we should value people's lives more than the contents of the shareholders' pockets.
Jeff Jenkins, Southampton, UK

Hopefully there'll be a real debate about our embarrassing 'ethical' foreign policy which seems to be exactly the same as it's ever been (guns to dictators, imposing our western ideas on the third world etc.), but with a lot more patronising hot air trying to cover it up. I'd like us to really bother about other countries rather than pretending we do. More action and far, far less hypocrisy please.
Rob, Birmingham, UK

The late former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Robert Muldoon, made an interesting point when questioned over then US President Carter's position on not trading with countries that had abused human rights. When confronted with this statement, Muldoon retorted that if New Zealand were to stop trading with every country that had violated human rights "we would have no-one to trade with". Every country abuses human rights to some extent and - while this does not make it right - we must also consider that pursuing an ethical foreign policy has the potential to lose more allies than we gain.

OL, Australia

OL of Australia's points are well made, however there is a difference between trading with those who have or have had poor human rights records (the UK for one has some very dark chapters in its history) and taking positions that will inflame already troubled regions. There can be no reason whatsoever to try and stop parliament or some other body approving arms sales abroad, unless it is to hide shameful secrets about who in this country is currently selling weapons to. It might just be possible to argue current arms sales conform to the letter of the law - if you had OJ Simpson's lawyers - however I doubt even a politician would try to claim that they conform to the spirit of the law. I have not heard a member of the current government use the phrase "foreign policy with an ethical dimension" for some time now. Is this because it is so blatantly evident that our foreign policy has no such dimension?
John, London, UK

I thought I must reply to John from London when he [correctly] states that the UK has had its dark moments over human rights. So does every country. Did not Spain kill off the Inca race? France under Napolean tried to conquer Europe. The USA took the land belonging to the American Indians, Australia its native peoples' land, not to mention the abuses by the Soviet Union and China. Leave the past where it belongs, in the past and move on. You cannot judge what happened in history by today's standards.
Colin Mackay, UK

When we move heaven and earth to mobilise NATO and the Americans to bomb innocent Serb civilians, while at the same time abandoning miserable Palestinian refugees to be annihilated by Israel, scorn is all we deserve. Our leaders are the worst hypocrites. Nicholas Hadjinikos, Dublin

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