US veto could stall Nigeria oil embargo

Inside Parliament Stephen Goodwin
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Indy Politics
The Labour Party yesterday pressed the Government for an embargo on Nigerian oil exports - both as a lever to end the bloody denial of human rights in Nigeria and as a means of stemming the tide of asylum- seekers coming to Britain. But although an embargo was not ruled out by Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, privately ministers feel there is little prospect of getting such a move through the UN security council.

Were the Government to take up the call by Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, in the resumed Queen's Speech debate, a senior ministerial source said it was likely the US would veto it. The US imports about 50 per cent of Nigeria's oil, but Britain imports little.

Mr Cook said an embargo would be the best way to bring home the revulsion felt at last week's hanging of nine environmental activists by the Nigerian regime. "I am familiar with the dilemma that applying economic pressures to a regime can bring pain to its people, but the whole point of Ken Saro- Wiwa's campaign was that the peoples of Nigeria saw too little of the revenues from the oil," Mr Cook said. For the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell urged sanctions in protest at the regime's "cruel and inhuman behaviour".

Mr Rifkind said no option was excluded. "What we are primarily concerned to do is identify measures that won't harm the Nigerian people but make international condemnation of the Nigerian government clear and unmistakable."

Mr Cook saw the restoration of democracy and human rights in Nigeria as one way of helping to reduce the number of applications for asylum in Britain - an issue the Government has chosen to deal with through its controversial Asylum and Immigration Bill.

Worldwide there are 40 million refugees and displaced persons. This year it is expected there will be 40,000 applications for asylum in Britain of which only a small number will be accepted.

With MPs on both sides continuing to press for the Bill to go to a special standing committee so that evidence could be taken from experts outside Parliament, Mr Cook said foreign policy had a part to play in removing the pressure of refugees. Human rights should be at the centre of foreign policy, starting with Nigeria.

"Given all we now know about the brutality of that regime, it is very difficult to understand why it is that over the past 12 months out of the 2,032 applications for asylum from people from Nigeria, one has been granted and 2,031 have been rejected?" Mr Cook asked. "Can the foreign secretary put his hand on his conscience and tell us that 99.95 per cent of those applications were bogus?"

Opening the day's debate, Mr Rifkind ignored the warning by his predecessor Douglas Hurd against "empty noise and phoney warfare" and concentrated on ridiculing Labour over its CND past and U-turns on Europe.

Mr Cook and Tony Blair would "roll over" and let policies be imposed even though they knew them to be harmful to British jobs and interests, he said. Labour's cardinal error in foreign policy was "to confuse being liked with being successful, to believe that the purpose of being successful was to please other governments".

Pleasing other governments is certainly not a charge being levelled at Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence. Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, protested that after Mr Portillo's "vile, xenophobic, chauvinistic ranting" at the Tory conference, no British government containing him could be taken seriously on any European question.

In the Lords, an apparent rebuke to Mr Portillo's speech came from Field Marshal Lord Bramall, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, who said it was not Brussels but the Government that was "tinkering about" with regimental cap badges. Greater co-ordination of defence policies was needed in Europe but the EU was not seeking to recruit a regiment of "Maastricht Rifles".