Well done, Mr Cook. Your latest failure's a success

The arms code might not stop one shipment. But the Foreign Secretary deserves credit for any code at all

AS YOU flicked through The Independent today, did you glance at the graphic picture of human misery in Oxfam's advertisement on the arms trade? Or, anaesthetised by our diet of ever more shocking images from the developing world, did you just turn the page?

The half-page photograph shows a woman whose mouth is half blown away. Her eye is covered by a wad of lint and her arm and leg are bandaged. "Look me in the eye and tell me that arms controls are tough enough," runs the headline. The ad goes on to attack the new EU code of conduct on arms sales, to be signed in Cardiff this week, for having too few teeth and too many loopholes.

Actually the woman in the picture comes from Cambodia, which buys its arms mainly from Eastern Europe and China. And nobody really knows what happened to her, though it seems likely she was hit by shrapnel. But still, I hear you cry, why let the facts get in the way of a good tale? A shocking situation such as the deaths of thousands of civilians each year in war zones deserves shocking treatment; as Oxfam points out, 84 per cent of war victims are civilians and half are children.

On the other hand, isn't it about time someone said something nice about Robin Cook? Let's give the Foreign Secretary his due, for a change. In private, even Mr Cook might admit that the new code is little more than a basis for further discussion. But without his efforts we would never have got even this far.

Mr Cook promised a new code under Britain's presidency of the EU, and he has delivered one after months of delicate negotiation. Sure, he would probably have liked it to be a little tougher; but he lives in the world of real politics, and this is what he could get.

The code asks EU countries, for the first time, to consider how their arms sales may deprive the health and education systems of developing countries of resources and how they may affect development. It also underlines promises made in 1991 and 1992 by EU countries to consider human rights and the possibility that their arms will be used for internal repression or external aggression.

In future, an EU member state that chooses to sell arms to a regime previously rejected on such grounds by one of its partners will have to face scrutiny. It will know, because it will have been told, of the rejection. And it will have to inform the rejecter of its decision to go ahead and sell.

Is there anything wrong with the new code? Well, it has to be said: quite a lot.

First, it says nothing at all about the brokers who operate from Western Europe but who ship arms around the world without ever bringing them into the EU. These people, whose activities often blight the lives of innocent civilians in developing countries by fuelling both war and poverty, can continue to operate with impunity.

Nor does the code mention the shipping of arms via third countries to disguise their true destination. Did you know, for example, that the Channel Islands are a major importer of small arms from Britain? Quite remarkable for a place that does not even have an army.

Publicity is the oxygen of change, of course, but this agreement is designed to keep transactions as secretive as they are now. Information on arms sales will be passed through diplomatic channels in secret. And, although there will be a published annual report, it will be a resume of the picture from across Europe and may contain few details of individual deals. There will still be no parliamentary scrutiny of arms sales as they happen.

Will the code stop a single arms sale from taking place? Possibly not. Take just one example: let us imagine that Britain refuses to sell anymore water cannon to Indonesia on the grounds that such equipment has been used to spray chemicals on pro-democracy demonstrators. Let us imagine that the Indonesians then turn to France to provide the equipment. What happens then?

Under the code, France will know of the UK's refusal and must tell the UK privately of its intention to sell the arms. But there is nothing to prevent France from reporting this after its arms licence has been granted. And because the information is passed in confidence, the finger will immediately point at Britain if it leaks. In the interests of Anglo-French relations the Brits may well opt to keep quiet. The water cannon will be on their way to Indonesia, and the public will be none the wiser.

But even if the code does not stop a single shipment of guns, we are still better off with it than without it. As the French Foreign Affairs Minister Hubert Vedrine puts it: "We shall see how to go further." An annual meeting of EU ministers will discuss the code and should provide a launchpad for progress.

So why has Oxfam chosen to make a fuss now, after the deal is done? The charity has campaigned, quite rightly, to press for as stronglyworded a code as possible. This week's approval is mere rubber-stamping. Although there should be progress in future, little can happen in the next year to move things on.

The charity has good reason to want to keep the subject on the agenda. It sees its game as a long one and is determined not to let people believe that the problem of arms sales to aggressive or repressive regimes has been solved. After all, Oxfam believes its campaign against landmines, which went on for five years, played a crucial part in persuading Britain to sign up to a ban.

But isn't it time now for congratulations rather than brickbats? Doesn't the Government deserve just a small slap on the back.

While high-profile public campaigns are a perfectly legitimate part of Oxfam's remit, attempting directly to influence the Government must surely be another. And while the Foreign Office reaction to this advertisement has yet to be seen, the bureaucrats could yet be forgiven for feeling a little miffed.

Oxfam has done well to keep stoking up the fires of controversy during negotiation on the arms code. But if it wants to be taken seriously as a player in the debate that must follow its official adoption, now is the time to be gracious. So let's here it. Altogether everyone: two cheers for Robin Cook. Hip-hip ...

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