In this essay, I intend to analyse the facts, about the British governments’ success in following an ethical foreign policy from the period from 1997 to the present day. I appreciate their ethical policy covers a large area, so I am primarily going to focus on the way the government have chosen to deal with issue of arms trading and their handling of unethical states.
On the 12th May 1997, Robin Cook the foreign Sectary declared British foreign policy must have an ethical dimension ‘Few statements by British a Foreign Secretary have participated more controversy and perhaps more confusion, than Robin Cook’s assertion’. (1)
The question is where do you draw the line? Where is Robin Cook getting his moral ethical code from, it would appear from his statement that he is Eurocentric basing his values on western society, such as democracy and civil liberties.
Cook declared: ‘We will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression. We shall spread the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves.’ Human rights, he emphasised, would be at the ‘heart of British foreign policy’. (2)
This would seem to be a straight forward statement, But that has not been the case and in the last seven years since Robin Cook made that fateful statement many problems have arisen, leading to the accusation by many that it was simply rhetoric on the day and the reality of the situation is that nothing has changed since they came into power. Things have just become more underhanded and Tony Blairs Government have been unsuccessful in their new ethical foreign policy.
A major issue, which has, caused them much embarrassment, is the issue of arms sales, and primarily to Indonesia who are currently occupying East Timor. Since 1975 more then 200,000 people have died in East Timor since the invasion. For many years the British government did nothing they saw the country as an excellent place for ‘investment’ and let the Suharto’s fascist new order continue with the slaughter and massacring of innocent people, that was all supposed to end when the new Labour government came into power, their ethical foreign policy implied there would be no more dealing with governments who carried out such atrocities, so it came as a huge embarrassment when only days after Robin Cook made his mission statement, it was shown that several Hawk jets had been sold to the Indonesians.
Robin Cook attempted to console this by insisting that the contract had been completed before the new policy had come in, and that it was legally binding the delivery to go through, he said that no such future deals would be made under the new arrangements. This could be considered a reasonable answer to the problem. Though this is not the end of the situation, Blairs Government have continued to issue licences for exports to the country. To the present day, 71 licences have been issued to sell to Indonesia, and only six refused.
Meanwhile, water cannon made by Tacita have been turned on students. The Indonesian defence attachï¿½ in Britain admitted that armoured cars from Alvis were roaring round the mountain roads of East Timor, and so it goes on. (3)
Labour MP, Ann Clwyd said: “I think Indonesia was the first big test for the government and on that test it has clearly failed because not a lot has changed.” (4)
It would appear that from the evidence so far that the government have been failing to follow their ethical policy they had a chance to make a firm stance from the beginning, but decided to put economic principles first. It is not just Indonesia who have been guilty of committing violations of human right and yet still been able to continue doing business with UK companies. Turkey is a country with a terrible record of abuse of their own people
The human rights situation in Turkey has deteriorated throughout the 1990s. Torture is widespread and systematic. Extrajudicial executions, “disappearances” and arbitrary detention continue with ever-stronger evidence of state involvement and collusion at the highest official levels (5)
The Turkish Government has made no effort to proceed with any of the recommendations for change. It has also failed to allow UN human rights experts to visit the country, and has ignored the recommendations of expert bodies such as the UN Committee against Torture.
British arms companies continue to selling weapons to the Turkish Army, which are then used against the Kurdish civilian population.
Turkey’s foreign minister and Turkish generals were invited and attended the 1997 Royal Navy and British Army Equipment exhibition in Farnborough. Vickers Defence Systems placed a bid in February 1997 to supply 800 battle tanks to Turkey. Gun mounted British Land Rovers are used extensively in the attacks and forced depopulation of Kurdish villages.(6)
This is once again an example of Britain the not putting their ethical pledge first and continuing to profit off the suffering of others. How can they expected to be respected on the international level and at home if they maintain links with countries who obviously fail the criteria set out in Robin Cooks mission statement.
Politically there have been some questioning actions taken by the British Government, when labour came to power they declared a new chapter with China, and in 1999 President Jiang Zemin came to Great Britain and agreed on ï¿½2bn worth of contracts. This from a President whose human rights violation has a dreadful past record.
‘China was still among the minority of the world’s nations which “institutionalises abuse of human rights” and maintained an “unacceptable degree of surveillance” over its citizens.(7)
The country is well known for its harsh penalties against pro-democracy activists and its suppression of trade unions and ethnic minorities and the fierce enforcement of laws restricting families to just one child. It would appear that the UK Government is putting Economic policy before their ethical policy evidence again of them failing their original objective. The cross-party Commons foreign affairs select committee warned ministers not become
‘Transfixed by the lucrative economic opportunities opening up in China.
It insisted there must be no “trade off” between pursuing human rights and improving commercial relations.’ (8)
In the labour parties defence Tony Blair has strongly stated how the human rights violation should be of the greatest concerns to ministers and MPs, and how future dialogue is needed and a possible review of certain issues. Though still in the years since Tony Blair met the Chinese president, human right violation have continued and deteriorated. It is all well and good for Tony Blair to condemn their behaviour, but at the heart of the problem is the original policy declared that Britain would put human rights at the heart of their foreign policy and dealing with a country who continue to flagrantly abuse these rights of their people is hypocrisy and show them failing their in their policy.
Tony Blair as good as abandoned his policy of ethical foreign policy in January 2000, when he agreed to overruled Robin Cooks objection of the sale of spare parts to fighter jets to Zimbabwe, for the use in the Congolese civil war in which Zimbabwe was playing a major role, with 7000 troops inflicting external aggression and also inflicting abuse of many human rights within Zimbabwe.
.The other less obvious question is whether it is ethical to sell weapons to a country, which is in serve debt and near bankruptcy.
So far we have seen examples of how Britain has been unsuccessful in their aim to develop ethical foreign policy, but was it ever a realistic option the problems arose immediately when the mission statement was released, due to the fact that in the very same document in which he had declared his ethical stance he also to under the heading of The UK’s National Interests said there is an ‘undertaking that “full weight” shall be given to protecting “the UK’s essential strategic industrial base”, and to the effect that arms licences could have on “the UK’s economic, financial and commercial interests.” (9)
He was putting almost impossible constraints on both policies, there would always be the departments fighting for control. Labour MP Ann Clwyd who chaired the parliamentary human rights group. Believed that the idea of an ethical foreign policy appeared to be more clever presentation than substance.
The problem is how far you are supposed to take an ideology when it may be to the detriment of your own country and national security. When a government comes into power, they form a legal agreement to look after the country in the best possible interest. Is the governments’ responsibility to look after its people or to follow a higher moral code? Is it unethical to start a policy that is detrimental to a long established industry in a country where thousands of jobs rely on the revenue made from those sales.
If you look at almost any country in the world today, you can pinpoint some area where they are breaking an ethical code or a human right, even the USA one of our closest allies and trading partners have been accused of human rights violation with them continuing to have the death sentence in some of their states and also on the issue of bombing Iraq.
It would appear that morality is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to British ethical policy. You need only look at the case of Yugoslavia, and Serbia and their conflict with the Albanian Kosovo’s and the Israelis and the Palestinians. Britain persuaded the allied forces to attack Serbia
First to “punish Mr Milosevic for the humanitarian disaster in Kosovo”, and secondly to secure “the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province and talks on regional autonomy”. Mr Blair must be careful. He cannot be seen to dismember Yugoslavia. That would be a blatant breach of the Helsinki agreement on national boundaries (10)
Then you have a country like Israel who for decades been attacking people in their own land, but the British have just sat back and let the Israelis continue. Where fundamentally do the Serbians and the Israel’s differ, both countries have claims to land which belongs to them, both sides are fighting ‘terrorist organisation’ both sides have used military force to implement their power, except one country is allowed to continue with the brutality and have diplomatic and trade links with the UK whilst the other side is put under sanctions and bombed.
Some may argue that the reason Serbia was punished is that they were carrying out ethnic cleansing, but still is their a large distinction to be made between that and when the Israel went Jenin with their tanks. No matter what the reasons it still shows how Tony Blairs Government are failing to follow their initial plans and show that in politics nothing is black or white, people are always going to be following other agenda be political or economical.
‘When missiles from Israeli F-16 jets slammed into a Gaza apartment block on July 23rd and killed not only the intended target – Hamas militant Saleh Shehada – but 14 other civilians including nine children, the attack was widely criticized.’ (11)
The UK government has on a number of occasion found itself embarrassed by Israel’s actions due to the use of military equipment which has been sold to the Jewish state by UK firms such as BAE then used to for raids on the Palestinians,
‘The foreign secretary admitted that Israel had refused to promise that the armoured cars would no longer be used in operations against the Palestinians’ (12)
Then you have countries like Pakistan. This is an interesting case on October 12th 1999 a military coupe took place in the country and General Musharraf took control, the British response was to suspend them from the common wealth any aid to the country was frozen from the IMF and World Bank, the foreign office declared there could be no normal business until at least a date was set for the resolution of democracy. This appeared to be a positive sign of Britain following their ethical foreign policy, but how soon ideologies go out the window when national security interests come to ahead.
On September 11th, the world changed, when a massive terrorist attack took place in the USA and attempted attacks were foiled in the UK. The old ideas of ethics went out of the window. Pakistan was once again our ally and all restriction were lifted against them because they were now tactical resource that could be used to launch attack on ‘our enemies’ their problems with democracy were quickly forgotten by the UK. Again the question arises can we blame the Government for doing this, we hope they were putting the best interest of the country first and at the end of the day that is why they are elected, though they did again abandon their policy of trying to deal with countries which were democratic and fair moving away from the mission statement.
Russia is another country, which has been brought closer to the UK with the attacks on September 11th, and whose past record of human rights violations were forgotten. During the 1990’s Russia was criticised heavily for the dealing with Chechnya ‘There are mass executions of civilians, arbitrary detention of Chechen males, systematic beatings, torture and, on occasion, rape. There is the absolutely systematic and rampant looting of Chechen homes by Russian troops; these acts need to be condemned publicly in the strongest terms.”