Joan Smith: We still need an ethical foreign policy

Robin embarked on a new policy of intervention where civilians were threatened
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The Independent Online

As it turns out, his worst fears have been realised. British and American troops are struggling to protect themselves and ordinary Iraqis from so-called insurgents, who make no distinction between military and civilian targets. There is a sporting chance that the new constitution will impose Islamic law on the country, and I am sure Robin's sympathies would have been with the courageous Iraqi women who have taken to the streets to demonstrate against finding themselves subject to sharia law.

But it is clear from Robin's resignation speech that he also saw a larger danger, not just to Iraq but to the project which, in my view, will come to be seen as his most important legacy. When Labour came to power in 1997, it inherited a foreign policy whose moral bankruptcy had been exposed two years earlier at the time of the Srebrenica massacre. Confronted with the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War, Robin's predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, resisted calls to intervene - a refusal that was supported by Labour MP Mike Gapes, the new chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

When Robin arrived in King Charles Street, things quickly began to change. He set up a human rights department, sent junior diplomats to do work experience at NGOs and began publishing an annual human rights report, which contained trenchant criticism of abuses committed by friendly countries. (This did not always go down well at the FCO. I remember, in spring 2001, being faxed several drafts of Robin's speech, with a tough paragraph on China appearing and disappearing as a battle went on behind the scenes. When I arrived in his office, he handed me the final version with a mischievous smile. At the last moment, his critical remarks on China had been put back in.)

Most important of all, Robin embarked on a new policy of liberal intervention in countries where civilian populations were threatened by civil wars, massacres and ethnic cleansing. Within a short space of time, it was being put into practice: first in Kosovo and then in Sierra Leone, turning Robin into a local hero even if it did not make him universally popular at home. He once told me that if ever he lost his seat in the House of Commons he could always stand for election in Freetown, where he was hugely popular.

At the time of the Kosovo intervention I had reservations, not about military action but the way it was carried out. I worried that high-level bombing was too imprecise a weapon to use for humanitarian intervention, threatening unnecessary civilian casualties. I later came to think that Robin had been right - the Americans would never have agreed to anything else - and I had been wrong.

What Robin foresaw in the run-up to the Iraq war was the damage a unilateral invasion would do to international relations and the possibility of future humanitarian interventions. I shared his fears, and in what would turn out to be the final weeks of Robin's life, I could see them becoming reality.

In the wake of the London bombings, the tide has begun to turn against liberal intervention, as though a botched war and some horrific terrorist attacks discredit the entire principle.

They don't, but we are going to need someone of Robin's stature to put the counter argument, which is one of many reasons why his untimely death is a tragedy.

If we believe in the notion of universal human rights, then we must recognise a moral obligation to protect our fellow human beings from murder, rape and torture. The fact that we cannot intervene in every instance, or that the outcome is not always exactly as we would have wished, is no reason for retreating into the Little England mentality that allowed Srebrenica to happen.

The last time I saw Robin and his wife Gaynor, we ate in a restaurant near my house which is run by a Kosovan family. The owner and half the staff arrived at our table, eager to see the politician who had saved their country. "I love that man," Avdullah said to me the next day, with tears in his eyes. I can't think of a better testament to Robin's principles, and why we should remain true to them.