Leading article: Arms and the rhetoric of ethics

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IN A WORLD free of hypocrisy and the pretence that there are once- for-all standards of good conduct among nations, makers of munitions would get on with it. If producing tanks, helicopters and submarines is legal according to British law, then free trade should prevail and all comers get served. If - to take an example from our pages today - Thames Water can freely sell pipes to the Indonesians, thus implicitly supporting the regime in that country, why shouldn't Vickers be given the same right? The answer, according to successive British governments, is that arms are too useful as a diplomatic bargaining tool; that sales can come back to haunt you (or kill your soldiers); that governments must occasionally pretend there are timeless international standards of conduct which forbid sales to regimes temporarily designated as pariahs. In the real world arms sales are decided ad hoc amid a confused flurry of motives and reasoning. It will probably always be so.

But here comes the Foreign Secretary spouting ethics. Unlike pipes, financial services or designer clothes, the sale of arms should be restricted to states he deems worthy. If the great rhetorician had, last summer, simply said that he would humbly try to increase the volume of human rights principle in British government decisions on arms sales, but that in a complicated and changing world he could guarantee nothing, we would have applauded a brave and realistic statesman. Instead, we got unrealisable high-flown sentiment.

And still he is at it. Yesterday Robin Cook secured a useful agreement with fellow members of the European Union against undercutting in the arms business - the promise is that the French or Italians will not come along to sweep up contracts which the British government has forbidden British firms to undertake. It is an agreement in restraint of trade. But a realist would say: "Fine, it does imply there will be some consistent, albeit minimal, application of human rights doctrine to non-EU countries and in turn that might lead to the growth of common positions in EU foreign policy."

But instead of identifying a small step forward, Mr Cook once again made exaggerated claims. We now possess, he seemed to say, a new, reliable, European tool with which to judge other countries' moral fitness to acquire the means to kill. Do we really? Tomorrow the President of the Board of Trade opens what amounts to an arms bazaar for South Africa. Credits are being extended, colourful tents put up - figuratively - to display gleaming machines for destruction. Ah, we will say, this is ethical because under President Mandela South Africa wears the colours of sweetness and light. Presumably, under the new European accord, it is not for the French or Swedes to ask whether some of those weapons might ever be used for domestic repression, nor indeed what enemies they are supposed to deter, South Africa being situated in a region at peace. But they might, and perhaps they should.