Our man in Uzbekistan was right: foreign policy should be ethical

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The Independent Online

"Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other people for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves." This is how the newly appointed foreign secretary in the newly elected Labour government instructed his diplomats seven years ago. But seven years is a long time in British foreign policy, and Craig Murray, our man - until last Thursday - in Uzbekistan, has now been penalised for embracing too enthusiastically what is, regrettably, an outdated script.

It is not without precedent for an ambassador to be recalled from his post. In the world of diplomacy, however, it is rare indeed for the recall to be as protracted and as public as it has been here. It is rarer still for the ex-ambassador to come out, all moral outrage and rhetorical guns blazing, in his own defence. He was, he told the BBC yesterday, "a victim of conscience", and expressed concern that his recall signalled "a phase in the politicisation of the Civil Service". He has a point.

He has a lot of other points, too. Over two years in Uzbekistan, Mr Murray had been outspoken about the abuse of human rights in that former Soviet republic. He might have got away with this hardly controversial view - indeed, he says he had cleared all his public speeches with the Foreign Office - had he not gone on to query the extent to which the US and Britain were turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in states such as Uzbekistan for the sake of the "war on terror". Implicating a third country, let alone a close ally, is a bigger offence than merely criticising your own.

Mr Murray's most recent point, expressed - he says - in an internal cable leaked without his knowledge, was the most lethal. He charged that MI6 was using intelligence obtained under torture in Uzbekistan. This was, he said, "morally, practically and legally wrong". Yesterday, while denying that Britain ever used or instigated torture, Downing Street admitted that, if presented with evidence obtained by torture, "we would look at it". Perhaps this helps to explain why so much recent intelligence has been wrong.

Mr Murray is what is known in polite society as a colourful character. But such figures have long held an honoured place in HM Diplomatic Service, which generally knows how to cope. Abject conformity is not, contrary to a popular view, a precondition for becoming a diplomat. Discretion, on the other hand, is - and the Foreign Office plays as accomplished a game of hardball as any, when it feels under threat. Its statement that Mr Murray was withdrawn for "operational reasons", having lost the confidence of "colleagues and ministers", may not be far from the truth, but the unattributable briefings that preceded it were as scurrilous as they come.

Earlier this year, the Foreign Office produced a new mission statement, which placed combating global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction at the top of its priorities, followed by protection from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and international crime. Human rights occupied the sixth of eight places. Craig Murray was working to the old agenda. Good for him.