Big Export for Britain Clashes With New Ethic


What happens when admirable, populist politics threaten to bottleneck a well-worn path to profit? Consider that the country with the world's second-largest arms-export industry is now being run by a government that hopes to make human rights the centerpiece of its foreign policy.

Britain's Labour government has lost little time in pledging to pursue what Foreign Secretary Robin Cook calls "an ethical foreign policy with human rights at its heart." But after 100 days it is already learning that commercial imperatives can skew the best of moral intentions.

A week after delivering a speech promising that Britain would not sell weapons to governments likely to use them for internal oppression or international aggression, Mr. Cook gave the go-ahead July 28 for a sale to Indonesia of 16 British-built Hawk jet fighters, as well as water cannons and 50 Scorpion armored cars.

His decision was attacked by human rights campaigners, who days earlier had praised his much-publicized commitment to an ethical foreign policy, but who now complained that the Jakarta government had conducted an oppressive policy in East Timor for several years.

Cook pointed out that the contracts were legally binding and must be honored, but undertook to ensure that all future arms sales would be examined "in the light of human rights and the position in East Timor at the time."

His comments drew an immediate warning from Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who said that if they meant curtailing future arms sales to Jakarta, his country would "go somewhere else." Mr. Alatas said the Hawk jets would be used solely for national defense.

Currently, Indonesia buys 60 percent of its arms imports from Britain. Other European exporters are known to be eager to expand their military sales in Asia.

The Labour government's promise to follow an ethical foreign policy while giving what Cook calls "robust support" to Britain's arms-export industry is likely to produce more dilemmas in the future, analysts say.

Defense writer Michael Evans notes that close to half of Britain's 5 billion ($8.3 billion) in annual arms exports last year went to Saudi Arabia, whose government is often criticized for human rights infringements. Also, according to arms-industry statistics, some 90,000 British jobs are dependent on military exports. With more than 2 million British workers still unemployed, Prime Minister Tony Blair is unlikely to want to see sales of military equipment significantly curtailed.

But although economic calculations appear to set limits on what can be achieved with a foreign policy based on respect for human rights, political factors seem likely to push Cook and other Labour ministers in an ethical direction. In its last five years, former Prime Minister John Major's government came under heavy fire for breaking its own guidelines on the sales of arms to Iraq.

Labour took full advantage of Mr. Major's embarrassment, and when an official inquiry confirmed that arms-sales rules had been broken, the party included a commitment to an ethical foreign policy in its platform.

Cook can point to several concrete moves - including the banning of land-mine exports - to support his contention that Britain's foreign policy already has a discernible ethical content.

A British Foreign Office source says the next phase of Cook's bid to put a moral dimension into foreign policy is likely to be a concerted effort to persuade Britain's allies in Europe to coordinate their policies on arms sales.

The case of France, however, is likely to pose great difficulty, the source says. French arms exporters are under only limited pressure from their government to adhere to ethical weapons-sales guidelines.

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