Leading Article: Democracy is more important than the arms trade

Click to follow
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S report into Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy" makes disturbing reading. Amnesty has compiled a list of nations to which Britain still sells arms: Indonesia, still occupying East Timor; Saudi Arabia, imprisoning political dissidents; Turkey, busy cleansing Kurds from its eastern provinces.

To some extent, this is a welcome lesson in reality. It is very difficult to stand aloof in splendid isolation, posing as moral arbiter, especially in Britain's position as a middle-ranking power. Britain has defence links it is difficult to sever without loss of jobs, and commitments any new government cannot simply renege on.

This has been highlighted this week by the Foreign Secretary's embarrassment in Malaysia, forced to shake hands politely and smile as the tyranny run by his hosts crushes opposition. The arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, and police attacks on demonstrators calling for his release, have been excused by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. His logic is that, since he had declared the protests illegal, he was justified in breaking them up. We may be forgiven for thinking that we have had enough of Mr Mohamad's preaching about "Asian values", the supposed set of authoritarian attributes that would bring the Pacific Rim quickly to the centre of the global stage. Not only does his vision look tarnished given the collapse of the "tiger economies"; now the iron fist in the velvet glove has been revealed, at the merest whiff of discontent caused by economic crisis. What he seems to ignore is that economic progress and democracy go together. Markets cannot survive without transparency - and the best way to secure that is accountability to a discerning electorate.

Mr Cook has decided to stay in Malaysia, contrary to his original plan. He was to some extent obliged not to leave the Queen alone, exposed to the charge of tacitly supporting Mr Mohamad. His ability to be diplomatic is a laudable quality in a Foreign Secretary; but not in all cases, and not at all times, especially while dealing with the kind of governments who care about arms more than the welfare of their people. Appeasing them will allow Britain's good name to become tarnished again.

To be fair, Labour's Foreign Office team inherited many of these links. Amnesty itself praises many aspects of Britain's work abroad since May 1997, especially in promoting democracy in the developing world. Clare Short's energy as Secretary of State for International Development has helped to give impetus to this. Amnesty also argues that other departments, especially Defence and Trade and Industry, have undermined the Foreign Office and promoted Britain's arms traders.

Those departments, though, are supposed to work under Foreign Office guidelines: if they are not, this is another example of the lack of grip that Mr Cook exhibited in the arms-to-Sierra Leone saga. Then, his department was allowed to drift into giving mercenaries the impression that their activities had official sanction. Now, his silence allows the impression that Malaysia can pass as many draconian security laws as it wants, and still enjoy royal visits and British arms export guarantees.

The Foreign Office will always have to deal with regimes which abuse human rights, even if only to exercise some restraining influence. But it does not have to stay silent about their crimes in public. And it does not have to sell them arms. Tax-payers' money should not cover the losses of arms companies while the world's poor need self-sufficiency in clean food and water. And only the most short-sighted believe that arms exports are worth more in terms of British interests than by democracy and stability rolling out across Asia and the globe.