Early test for Labour's new ethical policy

Robin Cook embarks this week on one of his most delicate diplomatic tasks as Foreign Secretary: an official visit, intended to promote human rights, to a group of friendly countries accused of abuses.

During a five-day tour of South-East Asia he will discuss "deepening relations across Asia" and "ensuring respect for human rights", according to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, where he arrives tomorrow. The first is the standard diplomatic task of further warming generally cosy relations in a region which has strong historical, cultural and trading links with Britain.

The second relates to Labour's commitment to foreign policy with an "ethical dimension".

The challenge for Mr Cook is to frame his humanitarian concerns but avoid offending the sensitivities of his hosts at what, for several of them, is an unusually sensitive time.

In May Mr Cook was applauded by rights organisations after unveiling his policy a fortnight after taking office. Promising not to forget about "political values ... when we check in our passports on diplomatic business", he announced an annual report on human rights, an end to arms sales to repressive regimes, and "support [for] the demands of other people for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves."

But Mr Cook's decision to allow the planned sale of Hawk military aircraft to Indonesia disappointed many who had earlier praised him. Since then the new policy has found little practical expression.

Apart from an oppressive Internal Security Act (inherited from its British colonisers), Malaysia has one of the region's better rights records, although a court recently convicted a group of Muslim women for wearing bathing costumes at a beauty contest.

But Mr Cook's concerns are unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing from the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, who recently called for the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights to be rewritten on the grounds that it was "formulated by the superpowers, which did not understand the needs of poorer countries."

Things will not be much better in Singapore, where a trial last week raised the question of political freedom.

JB Jeyaretnam, a left-wing opposition MP, is being sued for defamation by Singapore's prime minister after making factual statements at an opposition rally during last December's election campaign.

Mr Jeyaretnam's British QC, George Carman, last week accused the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, of using the trial "as a method of causing financial oppression on this 71-year old man because you wanted him out of Parliament".

Earlier this year a US State Department report referred to the government's "attempts to intimidate the opposition through the threat of libel suits". Will Mr Cook support Mr Jeyaretnam, a left-leaning lawyer, like him? Or will he concentrate on building on Singapore's growing trade links with Britain?

The dilemma will be presented most acutely in Indonesia, whose numerous alleged rights abuses are seen by many campaigners as a test case for New Labour's policy.

Last weekend two tribesmen in the remote Irian Jaya province were said to have been shot, and others injured by Indonesian troops flown in to quell unrest at a copper and gold mine part-owned by a British company.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test