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Cook's 'achievement'

The 'achievement' of our beloved Foreign Secretary lauded in today's
Guardian. You can e-mail a response for the letters page to

voices uk

Putting ethics on the map

Robin Cook's achievement deserves support

Monday April 9, 2001
The Guardian

Ethics, that is to say the application of morals to human conduct, has
always been a difficult area. Even Plato had his problems. So when Robin
Cook added an ethical dimension to British policy in 1997, the Foreign
Office's answer to Socrates seemed to be just asking for trouble. In the
peripatetic school of modern politics, low-brow pedestrians of all parties,
egged on by the press, were only too happy to put the boot in. What vain and
foolish posturing, they cried. What hypocrisy! Mr Cook has been trying to
act philosophical ever since.
What is rarely, if ever, noted is that Mr Cook's attempt publicly to anchor
policy in morality, while easily mocked and obviously imperfect, was a brave
and creative step. The foreign secretary is said to believe that helping
depose Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic is his most important achievement to
date. But the emphasis he has placed on human rights may have a more lasting
impact. No future British government will be able to ignore the much derided
ethical dimension. Nor, as foreign policy is increasingly collectivised,
will any other EU member state.

In effect, Mr Cook has attempted that most difficult of things: to change
attitudes. British diplomats now receive human rights training as a matter
of course. Mr Cook has established de facto criteria by which all future
policy will be judged, be it overseas arms sales, bilateral aid or
humanitarian intervention. Britain has championed the UN's international
criminal court. And in East Timor, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, for example,
Britain's actions have gone well beyond narrowly defined national interest.
Its position was all the stronger for being morally justified.

There remains plenty of cause for complaint, about lack of consistency and
apparent blindspots. In a recent speech on the government's human rights
record, Mr Cook criticised China's numerous abuses but made no reference to
Russia's appalling behaviour in Chechnya. For many people, Mr Cook's words
have not been reflected in policy in Iraq, in Kurdish areas of Turkey and in
respect of Israel's conduct in Palestine. Draft arms exports regulations
have been slow in coming and contain serious loopholes. And Britain is still
reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia and the US over such matters as the
death penalty. But in a world mostly beyond Britain's control, Mr Cook's
overall effort to raise expectations and set standards deserves support, not

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