Politics: Cook plays down arms sale block

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The Independent Online
Britain has blocked new sales of arms to Indonesia, suggesting the Government is making good on its election pledge to emphasise human rights when weighing arms exports. David Usborne, in New York, assesses the ramifications.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, confirmed in New York yesterday that the Government has refused licences for fresh sales of military equipment to Indonesia on human rights grounds. He played down, however, the implications of the move for Britain's wider relationship with Jakarta.

Asked about the move on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Foreign Secretary said that he was responding to widely- voiced criticism of Indonesian repression of its own people and particularly in East Timor, which has been under annexation since 1976.

"That's what's guided us in that case and that's what will guide us in any future licence application," he said in a BBC interview from New York.

There is still no international recognition of Indonesia's hold on East Timor, which it invaded following the withdrawal of its former coloniser, Portugal, in 1975. Portugal has been the focus of efforts to pressurise Jakarta into permitting the people of East Timor to hold a referendum on their future.

The suspension of the licences, believed to involve pounds 1m worth of exports of sniper rifles and armoured personnel carriers, was seen as a first gesture backing up a pledge made by the Government in its election manifesto to include human rights concerns when judging future arms sales abroad.

"It certainly does demonstrate that we have put in place tougher criteria," he said. "Those criteria are biting and they're delivering the policy that we promised."

But Mr Cook, who recently visited Indonesia, was at pains to minimise the potential fall-out from the decision on British ties with the country.

Recalling his visit, he told reporters in New York: "I briefed officials of the Indonesian government on our change in criteria, but we also confirmed our continuing commercial relations. I don't see this decision spreading in any way into the wider commercial and diplomatic relationship between us."