Leading Article: Human rights on the map

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It's bad luck on Robin Cook and his new emphasis on human rights in foreign policy that the first case is the worst case. The sale of Hawk fighters to Indonesia, still fighting a murderous campaign of repression in East Timor, is apparently to go ahead. The difficulties and the excuses are both clear; the breach of contract, so late in the process, would be shockingly expensive, while the use of Hawks in East Timor is said to be unlikely. Other sales of military equipment will be blocked. But the new policy is condemned to start with an ugly compromise - and that is a pity.

Now it is up to Mr Cook to demonstrate that his policy has not been devalued at its very outset. And he should be able to do so. Its strength is its practicality and case-by-case flexibility. The suppression of civil liberties in Burma and the resort to torture and state terror in Nigeria do not necessarily have to trigger the same British response. That response depends on a judgement of many factors. One is the progress in building the institutions of civil society "below the waterline" in a country which is still a dictatorship on the surface. If the Know-How Fund (for example) is successfully training judges and police officers to do their job as if they lived in a democracy, then it might be a tragic over-reaction to break off all relations with the state concerned because its leaders still reject a plural political system. The Cook principle is to use "positive" influence - rewarding improvements - before "negative" sanctions or blockade. But excommunication remains as a last resort, and Mr Cook seems ready to support the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth later this year.

Mr Cook is visibly fed up with hearing that this is a vulnerable policy. Many of his opponents will hope to catch him out on inconsistency - tough on Nigeria, for example, but soft on China. This is missing the point. It is not a matter of the punishment fitting the crime, but of assessing the chances of rehabilitating the offender. That will vary from case to case. The supreme problem is China, where the offences are multiple, persistent and systemic but the offender is very large and tough indeed. Protests or residential courses in citizenship for Chinese policemen are unlikely to make much difference. What then? Mr Cook has the personal courage to take stronger action, but to persuade the "international community" to support him will be hard indeed.

All the same, this is a bold break with the past. It demands new thinking in several British institutions. One is the Foreign Office, which has not been indifferent to human rights but which has not until now used them as a measure to determine behaviour to other countries. A second challenged institution is British business, above all the arms exporters who have enjoyed uncritical government support. Mr Cook, seized by the logic of the Scott Report, hopes to persuade industry that arming brutal autocrats is, in the end, a recipe for losing money. Finally there is the Home Office. Although Mr Cook has not made this point, taking a strong line against repressive regimes should also mean easier asylum for those who oppose them. "Enlightened self-interest" applies here too, for today's political refugees are tomorrow's presidents.

And there is another startling Cook innovation. He plans to open foreign policy-making to British civil society as a whole. Launching his policy last week at a gathering of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), he revealed he wants to enlist them into defence of human rights, mediation and conflict resolution. From now on, it seems, the NGOs are invited to act as a sort of performance monitor of foreign policy, in regular contact with the Foreign Office. And the invitation goes further. Mr Cook wants other professions involved - journalists and lawyers, to begin with - setting up human rights training programmes for overseas colleagues.

The language of human rights was slow to reach Britain. It took the rise of New Labour to persuade the Left that a "rights culture" was more than an American fad. But today this approach to individual liberty underlies all the Government's plans for constitutional reform. Now it has reached the Foreign Office. For the previous 18 years, diplomats had been confined to a narrow, materialistic furthering of "British interests". Now they are allowed to report that British interests are in danger wherever people are tortured, enslaved or imprisoned for their conscience. Last week, this country began to walk a little taller.