Cook lets Indonesians off the hook

Ethics v realpolitik: Foreign Secretary's visit to repressive regime fails to produce fireworks
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The Independent Online
Steve Crawshaw


Robin Cook yesterday walked into the lion's den of Indonesia - and emerged apparently unscathed. It is unclear whether his visit to the most controversial destination on his tour of South-East Asia will come to seem a victory or a piece of mere grandstanding, in the longer term.

The Foreign Secretary met President Suharto, then held "full and frank" talks with the Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, who also described them as "frank", usually diplomatic code for a blazing row. Both sides insisted, however, that the talks had been polite, if not necessarily cordial. Mr Cook insisted both sides "understood each other's point of view better".

In some respects the Indonesians may feel they got off lightly. There was little in Mr Cook's package to make them stamp their feet in rage. On East Timor, the former Portuguese colony the Indonesians occupied in 1975 and where there has been repression, Mr Cook announced proposals for a troika of European foreign ministers to visit the territory in search of a settlement. The Indonesians seemed unbothered. Mr Alatas even appeared to welcome the suggestion, on the basis that European ambassadors do not visit East Timor for fear of appearing to recognise Indonesian jurisdiction. The troika would visit East Timor during the first half of next year, when Britain holds the presidency of the EU.

Mr Cook talked of his review of criteria for arms sales but insisted: "The new policy ... will be applied even-handedly to all countries, and are not targeted on any one country." He went on to reassure the Indonesians: "No specific decisions have yet been made in respect of export licences to Indonesia. We will look at each case individually."

Mr Cook praised Indonesia's economic policy, including its "record of sustained economic growth" under the 30 years of President Suharto's rule.

As a kind of addendum to his visit he announced a "programme for human- rights partnership". This consisted of what may prove to be mostly decorative flourishes, including the donation of computers to the human-rights commission, some scholarships to Britain to learn about democracy in action and "a lecture series on modern policing methods".

Mr Cook held meetings with British businessmen, who are wary that the new "ethical" foreign policy might have damaging commercial knock-on effects, and also with Indonesian rights groups, official and independent. The government-supported Human Rights Commission received as a gift books including Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies and titles like Pressure Groups and Good Governance. The representatives of four rights groups seemed cautiously pleased the meeting was taking place, though sceptical about how much Mr Cook could achieve. One invited activist complained: "It's not particularly useful. It's very brief."

Mr Cook had originally said he wanted to meet Muchtar Pakpahan, a trade- union leader charged with subversion. Mr Pakpahan is ill in hospital. Despite the recommendations of his doctors, he has been forbidden to travel abroad for treatment. In his hospital ward on Thursday night, Mr Pakpahan told The Independent he was looking forward to meeting Mr Cook. An appointment, he said, had been made for yesterday (Friday) afternoon.

Confusingly, British officials said this was incorrect. Despite previous indications to the contrary, there would be no meeting after all, because "the schedule is very full".

Questioned about the cancelled meeting yesterday, Mr Cook gave a different version: he said Mr Pakpahan was in court yesterday and therefore unavailable to meet (this was incorrect; Mr Pakpahan briefly appeared in court on Thursday).

The confusion seemed difficult to explain. Mr Cook denied there had been pressure from the Indonesian authorities, though British officials later acknowledged the foreign ministry had "said it wasn't possible" to meet. Mr Pakpahan's crime of criticising President Suharto directly makes him a particularly loathed figure for the regime. If Jakarta exerted pressure to make Mr Cook cancel the meeting, British officials would not be eager for this to be widely known.

Saturday story, page 16

Jospin's backing

Paris (Reuters) -Lionel Jospin, France's Prime Minister, backed Britain's decision to tighten arms-export rules, and would study turning it into a European or world "code of good behaviour". He saw only "advantages in supporting the proposals of my friend moralise the arms trade," he told a gathering of envoys.