Leading Article: Cook's faulty conscience

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The Independent Online
AS THE news from East Timor grows steadily more outrageous, you might have been wondering when exactly Robin Cook's conscience would begin to prick just a little. When he became Foreign Secretary in 1997 Britain was a major arms supplier to the corrupt and oppressive Indonesian regime. It almost certainly still is - despite Labour's pledge of greater openness in this area, it is not possible to tell precisely how much things have changed since the general election. The official accounts of the 125 military exports to Indonesia under New Labour are singularly opaque. Mr Cook built his reputation as a fierce critic of the Conservatives' performance on arms exporting, most of all to Iraq but also including the notorious agreement to sell Hawk jets to Indonesia. Yet last week the Independent on Sunday discovered that Mr Cook, despite his much-vaunted "ethical foreign policy", had given a British firm, Westland, permission to continue negotiating with the Indonesians over the purchase of six Lynx helicopters, though the agreement is not yet signed and a British export licence could still be refused. This is just the sort of deal that would have had the "old" Robin Cook on his feet with scathing questions to Tory ministers, such as how exactly did they propose to stop the Indonesian military fitting machine-guns to these supposedly "naval" helicopters?

Yesterday the "new" Robin Cook attempted to save his reputation by finally suspending all British arms sales to Indonesia. He could hardly have done otherwise faced with the sickening catalogue of violence that emerged from Dili throughout last week - though he resisted until the last moment, being forced only days before into a demeaning acceptance of the Indonesian promise that they wouldn't use the British ground-attack aircraft for such purposes again.

Why did it take so long? It is now more than two decades since the genocide began in which nearly a quarter of a million of East Timor's desperate people have died at Indonesia's hands and, it seems, an unknown number may still die yet. East Timor's exiled foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, pleads in this newspaper today for action on a number of fronts: armed intervention, economic sanctions, a freeze on all bilateral economic assistance and all loans, the setting-up of a war crimes tribunal, and a boycott on Indonesia's goods and tourism, all of which Britain should now endorse. Above all, he calls for a complete international arms embargo on Indonesia - to which the UK is the chief weapons supplier. Lest Mr Cook should be tempted to let slip his "suspension" before peace and democracy is restored to this sorry land let us spell out to the Government the difference between issues of national interest and those where moral imperatives come to bear.

Refusing to sell arms to a country such as Indonesia labels it beyond the pale, deserving to be excluded from the society of civilised peoples. Simple justice demands that such governments be shunned, even if they cannot easily be brought to book. Selling arms to a repressive regime has the opposite effect. Symbolically, it says that the exporting country is prepared to turn a blind eye to the way the importing country ill-treats people under its control. Practically, it makes the means for that ill- treatment more efficient. Economically, it says the profits of arms manufacturers and the jobs of those they employ are all that really matters, and that human rights have no value. Diplomatically, it says that Indonesia's illegal seizure of East Timor, the origin of the present crisis, has been forgiven. And militarily, it makes outside intervention more dangerous and hence less likely.

Moral imperatives ignored have practical outcomes. If East Timor goes much further down the road to bloody anarchy, and outside intervention becomes the least-bad option left, we may yet see Australian and New Zealand troops being fired on by weapons "made in Britain". Then perhaps Mr Cook will concede that his conscience pricked too late.