The Ethics of Export: Landmines and Torture Devices No Longer Leave Our Shores, but Arms Policy Needs to Be More Transparent to Get Public Support. (Defence)
Clark, David, New Statesman (1996)
Since Labour's return to power in 1997, few aspects of government policy have received more sustained and critical attention than the question of ethics in the conduct of foreign affairs. Much of this was to be expected. The democratic left has always aspired to a world based on respect for universal rights. Often this has resulted in a conflict between the principles of internationalism and the demands of governing within the framework of the nation-state.
It was inevitable, therefore, that the incoming Labour government's foreign policy would be judged according to standards more demanding than those applied to its Conservative predecessor. What perhaps couldn't have been anticipated was the scale and intensity of that scrutiny. The initial flurry of interest was provoked by a reference contained in the Foreign Office mission statement published a few days after Labour's election victory; in which support for human rights and democracy was listed as one of the government's four key international objectives. In presenting the mission statement, Robin Cook referred to this as an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy, a phrase translated in the following day's papers as a commitment to pursue an "ethical foreign policy".
The intervention of the headline-writers had dramatic consequences. What had been the last in a list of four priorities (the others were security, prosperity and quality of life) was suddenly held aloft as the only point of reference, raising expectations of diplomazy without moral ambiguity that were never likely to be satisfied. This one-dimensional portrayal of Labour's foreign policy became associated with the single issue of arms exports.
Here, much of the comment was based on the false assumption that Labour considered the arms trade to be inherently unethical. Even now, the UK'S position as the second-largest exporter of military equipment is cited as proof that Labour has broken its promise -- as though the extent to which a foreign policy can be judged "ethical" is directly proportional to the quantity of weapons exported. In fact, Labour has never shared the moral absolutism of those opposed to the arms trade, but has sought instead to redefine and police the boundaries between what is legitimate and what is not. The most obvious example of this was the decision to ban the export of whole categories of equipment, namely landmines and torture equipment.
A second misapprehension was the belief that Labour had promised to stop weapons sales to countries that abuse human rights. It was enough, in this context, for the government to license military equipment for export to a repressive regime for the critics to cry "foul". Again, Labour's position was always more nuanced. Its 1997 manifesto said that it would "not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or aggression". At issue was not simply the record of the country in question, but the purpose to which specific weapons systems would be put.
The new export controls introduced by Labour reflect the advantages and drawbacks of this aim. Instead of declaring whole countries to be undesirable (international arms embargoes excepted), export licence applications are judged on a case-by-case basis against a list of criteria. Licences are only withheld if there are reasons to believe that the weapons involved will be used to harm Britain's national security, provoke regional conflict, suppress human rights, carry out international aggression or undermine sustainable development.
There are obvious difficulties with this system. One is that it relies, to a large extent, on assumptions about the reliability and future intentions of the end-user. …