When high principles run headlong into hard reality

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THREE LITTLE words that add up to one giant hostage to fortune. Ever since it was proclaimed within days of New Labour coming to power, the "ethical foreign policy" (though Robin Cook insists he never uttered precisely that phrase) has been the yardstick by which the Government's international policies are judged - and never more so than in its dealings with Indonesia.

The EFP was launched partly as a symbol, to demonstrate just how differently New Labour would behave in power from its lax and cynical Tory predecessor. But politicians quickly become prisoners of their symbols and, like it or not, the Foreign Secretary is saddled with this one until the day he leaves office.

Since May 1997 the policy has had its ups and downs. Its better moments have included Britain's scrupulous respect for international law in the Pinochet case, its driving support (unmatched by any other member of the United Nations Security Council) for an international criminal court under the aegis of the UN and its enthusiastic backing of the international treaty banning landmines.

High morality also coloured the UK's approach to the Kosovo conflict, with its government going further than almost any other in depicting the conflict as a simple struggle between good and evil. And if the world was treated to the unprecedented sight of war crimes investigators accompanying the troops into a liberated territory, it was thanks not least to Britain.

There have been downs as well, invariably where foreign policy meets the arms export business, where high principle all-too-easily runs into the hard economic realities of trade, jobs and profits. And nowhere more so than in the affair of the 50 Hawk trainer jets sold to Jakarta. The Government could defend its conduct in the 1998 furore over the clandestine Foreign Office-backed shipments of arms to war-wracked Sierra Leone, on the grounds that the weapons were being sent to the good guys - in this case the legitimate, democratically elected government in Freetown. But for the human rights groups which had hitherto been strong supporters of Mr Cook, there was no defending the delay until last weekend in suspending the delivery of the nine remaining Hawks, after seven days of carnage in East Timor.

"They talk to us; they want our input," say staff members at Human Rights Watch, which had put much hope in the new Foreign Secretary's outreach to NGOs since 1997. "But what happened over East Timor? They could have, they should have, acted far, far earlier."

Some Foreign Office officials will tell you how the true culprits are to be found in other government departments, notably the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence, far more inclined to turn a blind eye to arms sales to dodgy countries, in the name of preserving jobs at home and military influence with powerful, if repressive, foreign governments.

But whatever the explanation, Mr Cook is the loser, leaving himself open to charges of moral grandstanding and of preaching standards he is unable to deliver. Couple that with his not being the best-loved figure at Westminster, and the fury of Labour's left wing and the disappointment of the NGOs are all too easy to understand.

"We made clear there would be an ethical dimension to our foreign policy yet we continued to supply arms," complains the Labour MP Ann Clwyd.

A spokesman for the Committee Against the Arms Trade is even more vehement: "Fine words, but at the end of the day nothing changes. Ultimately the buck stops with Tony Blair: it's his government. What we see now has been going on for years and years. Whether it's one department or another, the bottom line is that this government, too, is arming repressive regimes abroad."

Two very different examples can be used to illustrate the divide between aspiration and reality. One is the annual report on arms exports introduced by the Labour Government, praised by the pressure group Saferworld as "the most detailed report published by any European country" and "allowing for increased scrutiny of licensing decisions".

Even so, as Saferworld also points out, the first such document, covering the last eight months of 1997, still leaves it hard to judge whether the Government is steering carefully enough between the UN-sanctioned right of countries to self-defence and Britain's promise that "no arms will be licensed which might be used for internal repression".

Categories are vaguely defined: what exactly, for instance, is covered by "electronic equipment", "aircraft spares" and "defensive body armour"? Some purchasing countries, among them Colombia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Turkey (not to mention Indonesia), have dubious internal human rights records. Two other customers, Jordan and Singapore, have proven track records as transit points for arms entering Iraq and Iran respectively.

The second illustration is even closer to home. Along by the Thames, on MoD land at Chertsey, Britain is currently hosting the biennial Defence Systems and Equipment International arms trade fair (known to aficionados as "Dicey"). It is the biggest such event in Europe, with 878 companies from 26 countries (including 527 from the UK) touting their wares.

Visiting warships from eight countries, moored by Canary Wharf, in London's Docklands, provide additional showcases for naval items too large to move further upriver.

Despite incontrovertible evidence of the Indonesian army's complicity in the massacres in East Timor, Indonesia's invitation to Chertsey was never withdrawn, for fear of upsetting a regular customer.

In the end Jakarta itself decided it would be wiser not to go. Such are the pitfalls of an ethical foreign policy.