Leading Article: Democracy Is More Important Than the Arms Trade

The Independent (London, England), September 23, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Leading Article: Democracy Is More Important Than the Arms Trade


AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S report into Robin Cook's "ethical foreign policy" makes disturbing reading. Amnesty has compiled a list of nations to which Britain still sells arms: Indonesia, still occupying East Timor; Saudi Arabia, imprisoning political dissidents; Turkey, busy cleansing Kurds from its eastern provinces.

To some extent, this is a welcome lesson in reality. It is very difficult to stand aloof in splendid isolation, posing as moral arbiter, especially in Britain's position as a middle-ranking power. Britain has defence links it is difficult to sever without loss of jobs, and commitments any new government cannot simply renege on.

This has been highlighted this week by the Foreign Secretary's embarrassment in Malaysia, forced to shake hands politely and smile as the tyranny run by his hosts crushes opposition. The arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, and police attacks on demonstrators calling for his release, have been excused by the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. His logic is that, since he had declared the protests illegal, he was justified in breaking them up. We may be forgiven for thinking that we have had enough of Mr Mohamad's preaching about "Asian values", the supposed set of authoritarian attributes that would bring the Pacific Rim quickly to the centre of the global stage. Not only does his vision look tarnished given the collapse of the "tiger economies"; now the iron fist in the velvet glove has been revealed, at the merest whiff of discontent caused by economic crisis. What he seems to ignore is that economic progress and democracy go together. Markets cannot survive without transparency - and the best way to secure that is accountability to a discerning electorate.

Mr Cook has decided to stay in Malaysia, contrary to his original plan. He was to some extent obliged not to leave the Queen alone, exposed to the charge of tacitly supporting Mr Mohamad.

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