Ministers 'have put commerce before ethics'

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Ministers have put commercial expedience before an ethical foreign policy, human rights groups said yesterday as the Government published its annual report on the subject.

Ministers have put commercial expedience before an ethical foreign policy, human rights groups said yesterday as the Government published its annual report on the subject.

Campaigners, led by Amnesty International, highlighted a series of cases in which Britain had been inconsistent in its application of Labour's flagship foreign policy.

But Robin Cook hit back at them for suggesting the UK should preserve its "purity" by refusing to talk to those who most needed to hear its message. In his introduction to the 174-page report, which detailed Britain's efforts to promote human rights around the world, the Foreign Secretary said dialogue was often the best way forward.

Among the cases raised by human rights groups was that of China, where Amnesty said law enforcement agents had launched the biggest crackdown on peaceful dissent for a decade. When China's president, Jiang Zemin, came to Britain in 1999, pro-Tibet demonstrations were suppressed and a state banquet was held in his honour.

Concerns were also raised about Britain's support for the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) in its battle against the the Revolutionary United Front. The SLA had attacked civilians and driven tens of thousands from their homes, said Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical charity.

Britain had also forged links with Russia's new President, Vladimir Putin, despite extrajudicial killings and torture in Chechnya by Russian forces.

And British officials continued to be closely involved in the £20bn Al Yamamah arms contract with Saudi Arabia despite Amnesty's concern that the country's justice system failed to meet internationally agreed standards and led to amputation, torture and execution.

Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty, welcomed some advances made by the Foreign Office in pressing human rights, but called for more consistency. "It is easy to condemn states such as Burma, Iraq and Sudan, but it lets off the hook other states such as China, Saudi Arabia andRussia.

"The Government may be sacrificing human rights on the altar of commercial expedience," she said in a BBC Radio interview.

Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, also accused the Government of inconsistency over human rights. "The mark of an ethical foreign policy is how you deal with the strong, not how you treat the weak," he said.

The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, was also critical of the Government's record. "'Constructive engagement' has replaced the 'ethical dimension,' according to Government ministers. It is time to restore the idealism with which the Foreign Secretary began."

But Peter Hain, a Foreign Office minister, told The Independent there was no "identikit formula" for human rights. Britain could not be criticised for failing to stop the war in Chechnya when it had done all it could, he said. But he accepted that the Sierra Leone Army needed training to prevent further abuses.

"These countries take absolutely no notice at all of headline-grabbing criticism. If we can't make the world perfect, we can make it better. Because we can't do everything, that doesn't mean we should do nothing," he said.

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