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 ...

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace