Defence cuts to help human rights

Military training budget reduced by more than pounds 2m to finance Robi n Cook's ethical foreign policy initiative
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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK, the Foreign Secretary, will today launch a new Human Rights Project Fund, cutting back on military training programmes to pay for it.

The initiative puts flesh on the bones of Mr Cook's controversial commitment to an ethical foreign policy. It is the first time that dedicated funds have been set aside for human rights around the world by the Foreign Office.

The Foreign Office has carried out a large-scale review of human rights activities since Mr Cook arrived in office, and has been quietly rethinking its policies. The Conservatives were often criticised for putting business higher than ethics on their list of priorities.

The new fund, pounds 5m for 1998/99, will supplement existing small-scale local human rights projects run from British embassies. Of the total, pounds 2.25m will be drawn from the existing budget for military training, sending out a clear signal of the Government's intention to change the ways of the past. Visits by ministers to countries such as Colombia, Indonesia and Brazil have already led to a reassessment of the way that embassies liaised with human rights groups. In Indonesia, Mr Cook also offered new legal and police training courses as part of an effort to curb human rights abuses in the country.

But the new initiative goes a step further than this, creating a new (albeit small) fund that is aimed at improving the protection of human rights globally. The aid will be directed at both governments and non- governmental organisations, such as community groups and human rights associations. Where there is overseas government opposition to human rights programmes, the Government will still give money to NGOs. Priority targets are likely to include legal training, support for a free media and tackling child abuse.

To get better value for money, the new fund will work with other existing programmes - such as those run by the Department for International Development, the British Council and the Chevening scholarships.

Military training, previously an important part of Britain's attempt to secure overseas influence, will also be re-targeted as part of the shift towards a more ethical foreign policy. The UK Military Training Assistance Scheme (UKMTAS) will be renamed ASSIST (Assistance to Support Stability with In-Service Training) giving a more cuddly sound.

But there will also be a more substantive change. The objectives behind military training will be reshaped to focus more directly on human rights. Top of the list of priorities will be the promotion of respect for civilian democratic government and practices amongst overseas military and police forces. Previously, the programme focused more on supporting "stability" - which often cloaked repression.

The new policy is likely to mean an end to purely technical military and police training, which has attracted criticism from human rights groups. Britain will continue to teach things like peacekeeping skills, however.

Mr Cook's ethical foreign policy attracted some criticism from those who thought it did not go far enough. The Foreign Office has quietly been developing ideas about putting its principles into practice.