Walking a fine line on human rights

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The Independent Online
Steve Crawshaw

Kuala Lumpur

Robin Cook yesterday walked out on the tightrope of his new foreign policy, weaving the twin themes of trade and human rights together into a single, cautiously balanced speech.

Speaking in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, on the first leg of a five-day trip to south-east Asia, the Foreign Secretary talked of the "global importance" of South East Asia and the "exciting new partnership" between Asia and Europe. At the same time, he insisted that human rights were "fundamental to foreign policy".

Just a few hours later, he arrived in Indonesia - the subject on which Mr Cook has seemed in most danger of being hoist with his own ethical petard. In yesterday's speech, he sought to avoid offending his hosts in the region, while not laying himself open to accusations of sell-out.

Until now, his main audience has been the electorate at home, where talk of ethics goes down well. In this region, things are less comfortable. Many countries in the region are more concerned about flourishing business than about human rights. Mr Cook thus gave the human-rights pill a sugary, business-friendly coating.

Above all, his speech was upbeat. He insisted that the turbulence in the financial markets, which continued yesterday, "should not obscure the underlying strength of the economies of South East Asia".

He described the powerful Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), as "a success by any measure". "No previous generation of national leaders could have foreseen close to 500 million people of various origins building an economic and political community as successful as Asean."

In this context, his main selling pitch was that Britain should be regarded as a key linkman, helping to build a stronger relationship between Asia and Europe - in effect, the missing side of a global triangle. Mr Cook pointed to the close links between Europe and America, on the one hand, and the United States and Asia, on the other, and argued: "We must balance [these links] with strong ties between Europe and Asia." Britain, Mr Cook argued, is "uniquely qualified to act as one end of the bridge".

He brandished Britain's new Europhile credentials, saying: "We are no longer a marginalised offshore island on the sidelines of debate in Europe, but a leading player of equal influence to the major countries of the Continent." Britain will next year host the second Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem). The Asem process, said Mr Cook, is "a great opportunity ... let us seize it".

He offered a list of six areas where he was seeking partnership. Five of these - economic partnership, security, the UN, environment and drugs - are uncontroversial. Dropped into the middle, however, came the hand grenade - "perhaps the most important, because it underpins all the others".

Mr Cook declared: "Promotion of personal freedom is central to the goals we all share: free and open societies, dynamic and modern economies as part of a safe and prosperous international community ... Every country is a member of the international community and it is therefore reasonable to require every government to abide by the rules of membership."

In a clear effort to avoid stepping on regional toes, Mr Cook insisted: "This is not a matter of division between north and south." Taking an almost apologetic tone, he said that "no one country should lecture other countries on their duty". None the less, he continued: "The right to enjoy our freedoms at home comes with the obligation to support the human rights of others abroad." He added that the principles should "find support in both developed and developing countries".