Benetton Ethics

Nick Cohen

  • First Annual Report on Human Rights
    56 pp, April 1998
  • The Great Deception by Mark Curtis
    Pluto, 272 pp, £14.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 7453 1234 9

When New Labour took office on 2 May 1997, supporters who had watched the Party’s rush to the right had already learned to put their faith in the God of Small Things. True, they sighed, Blair and the rest had accepted social authoritarianism, ‘flexible’ working practices, rampaging inequality and Conservative taxation and spending programmes. Yet for all the compromises, there were still cheering contrasts between the old and new regimes. The leftish Australian writer, Richard Neville, was quoted with approval: ‘There is perhaps an inch of difference between an Australia governed by Labour and an Australia governed by the right, but, believe me, it is an inch worth living in.’ Or as Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s spin doctor, put it when I remarked a few weeks after the new dawn broke that it was difficult to know whether there had been a change of government: ‘Bollocks, Cohen. What about the landmines?’ What about the landmines?

On 12 May Robin Cook announced the Government’s first leftward shift. Labour would abandon Tory foreign policy, whose futile cynicism had been dissected in the Arms-to-Iraq inquiry. Britain’s relations with the rest of the world would now have ‘an ethical dimension’. Conservative support for weapons designed to maim was dropped as Cook embraced the favourite cause of the then unmartyred Diana and backed a global ban on anti-personnel mines. The success of the new approach would be monitored, he added. The Government would ‘publish an annual report on our work in promoting human rights abroad’. Journalists, obsessed with reporting the landmine ban as a triumph for Di (‘I don’t think that lassie would have got very far if I hadn’t been in power,’ Cook harrumphed to all who would listen), barely noticed the promise. But human rights groups did; they had been campaigning for a rights audit for years. Cook was now holding out the hope that Britain would follow the example of the US, where the State Department produces comprehensive studies of extra-judicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, invasions of privacy, lack of fair trials and restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly and association in every country, except, of course, its own. There are criticisms of Washington’s approach, but at least an East Timorese, for example, could take the latest State Department report on Indonesia and say that even the US, which authorised the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the subsequent 200,000 deaths, concedes that there has been ‘no significant progress in accounting for persons missing’; that troop levels have remained ‘unjustifiably high’; that there are ‘no reports of military personnel who committed abuses in East Timor being punished’.

Official assessments of the regimes that Britain, the world’s second largest arms exporter, does business with would provide equally useful evidence. Human rights groups believed that annual reports would allow them to hold the Foreign Office to account. They expected crystalline statements of policy which could be quoted back at wonks and fixers whenever Whitehall wanted to cut the aid budget or arm a dictator. Instead, the Foreign Office and Clare Short’s Department for International Development have given them a Benetton catalogue. Of a little over fifty pages, six are taken up with full-page pictures. On the front cover is a shot of a pretty girl. She might be a Kurd, but maybe not, the report does not say. Then there is a white girl, who could be from anywhere between Moscow and San Francisco; a black boy, probably from Africa, possibly Birmingham; a Malay or Indonesian boy; another boy who I think is South American, but don’t hold me to it, he could be an Arab; and a girl I can say with assurance is one of a billion or so Chinese. All have charming smiles. Their teeth and hair shine. None shows visible signs of torture or, indeed, of having missed a meal since leaving the womb.

Much of the rest is filled with smaller photographs of Tony Blair, Cook, Short and their junior ministers looking grave and busy. One stands out – a picture of Robin Cook shaking hands on a deal with President Suharto, dictator of Indonesia at the time. Both have faint yet chummy smiles. Their grip is manly. Eye contact has been established. The deal in question is an arms purchase, although the reader would never guess it from the text.

The entire Report so perfectly represents the feelgood mendacity of New Labour that it’s hard to know where to begin. I think I will stay with Indonesia. When Jakarta went up in flames and Suharto, but not his regime, fell, the British press scrambled journalists in head offices. Few news organisations had an informed reporter on the spot. Most sent London-based firemen whose specialist knowledge consisted of what they could cram from head office cuttings files on the flight out. A British angle is the line editors love the most. Yet strangely no one mentioned the UK’s active encouragement of the massacres of between half a million and a million people which brought Suharto to power in the Sixties. Reporters did not need to go to the Public Record Office to find evidence of Foreign Office complicity with the slaughter. Mark Curds, author of The Great Deception, had done the legwork. Reporters did not even have to read his books: he had summarised his findings in a pointed, if regrettably hacked-back article in the Observer in 1996.

Curtis’s digging was news even by the self-referential standards of the gated media village. In 1990, Kathy Kadane, an American agency journalist, made her name when she revealed that in 1965 CIA officers had passed death sentences on five thousand members of the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, by handing their names to the insurgent generals. Curtis provides evidence that Britain was no less involved than the US in the coup against Achmad Sukarno, the nationalist Indonesian leader who was willing to work with the PKI. But Curtis is all but unknown as the final act of the violence we helped to create is played out.

His findings are damning. On 5 October 1965, as the massacres began, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, Britain’s Ambassador in Jakarta, told the Foreign Office: ‘I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change.’ On the following day, the Foreign Office in London replied: ‘The crucial question still remains whether the generals will pluck up enough courage to take decisive action against the PKI.’ Gilchrist shared his superiors’ worry that the generals might be pussy liberals. Although the Army was ‘full of good anti-Communist ideas’, he said, it was ‘reluctant to take, or incapable of taking, effective action in the political field’. The Foreign Office resolved on a strategy. ‘It seems pretty clear that the generals are going to need all the help they can get and accept without being tagged as hopelessly pro-Western, if they are going to be able to gain ascendancy over the Communists. In the short run, and while the present confusion continues, we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the generals.’ It is difficult to say how far British ‘help’ extended – the relevant files will be kept secret until well into the next century. But even the sanitised documents in the Record Office show an enthusiasm for black propaganda in support of the coup: ‘We certainly do not exclude any unattributable propaganda or psywar [psychological warfare] activities which would contribute to weakening the PKI permanently,’ the Foreign Office said.

Crucially, Britain agreed to give the Indonesian generals a free hand by secretly promising not to take advantage of the civil war. British troops were facing the Indonesian Army in the disputed territory of Borneo. Britain, said the Foreign Office, ‘did not want to distract the Indonesian Army by getting them engaged in fighting in Borneo and so discourage them from the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKI’. Michael Stewart, then Foreign Secretary, seems to have seen the imposition of military order as good for business. ‘It is only the economic chaos of Indonesia which prevents that country from offering great potential opportunities to British exporters,’ he wrote to Harold Wilson. ‘If there is going to be a deal with Indonesia, as I hope one day there may be, I think we ought to take an active part and try to secure a slice of the cake ourselves.’ Not a word of this was discussed by broadcasters or journalists, most of whom talked of ‘mobs’ on the streets and Suharto’s fantastic wealth. It was as if the Western media had reported that the Berlin Wall had been felled by a mindless crowd revolted by the Baltic villas of the East German élite and forgotten to recall the crimes of Stalinism. But then Suharto was ‘our’ criminal.

When Gilchrist died in 1993, he was presented as a typically British eccentric in obituaries recounting how he encouraged his assistant military attaché’ to defy an Indonesian crowd by marching through the embassy garden playing the bagpipes.

It is probably over-optimistic to expect a Foreign Office report to acknowledge its role in Suharto’s rise to power. But you might reasonably think that it would recognise the Suharto dictatorship for what it was. The State Department human rights report on Indonesia runs to 38 tightly written pages of A4. It makes perfectly clear that Indonesia is not a democracy and provides the names of the journalists who were murdered there, as well as the ghastly details of how the anti-subversion laws (still in force) operate. The 34 wide-spaced lines on Indonesia, filling half a sheet of A4 in the FO and International Development Department Report, record that Robin Cook went there in August, that he offered support to the work of Indonesian human rights groups and urged ‘dialogue’ in East Timor. Readers are given no clue why such initiatives are necessary.

Nor are they told that Stewart’s dream of securing a slice of the cake has been realised and Britain has become Indonesia’s largest arms supplier. The weapons trade, apparently, has no bearing on human rights issues. It is dealt with in a few reassuring paragraphs which begin: ‘We want arms transfers to be managed responsibly, to avoid the sale of weapons that might be used for internal repression or international aggression. In July we announced new criteria ... and will not issue an export licence where there is a clearly identifiable risk that the arms might be used for internal repression.’ It omits to add that New Labour left a loophole in these guidelines. The apparently castiron rules will not apply if the Government believes the weapons can be used for ‘protection of members of the security forces’.

Between 2 May 1997 and 6 March 1998, Labour delivered 51 batches of arms to Indonesia through this gap in its ethical defences. In a blackly comic illustration of the consequences of Realpolitik it now transpires that we will not even get our thirty pieces of silver. (The weapons sales were covered by two billion pounds’ worth of outstanding government export credits to Indonesia: the taxpayer will pick up the bill when the bankrupt regime defaults.) Cook has consistently played down the possibility that these shipments may be used to suppress Indonesians – even though murdering, terrifying and robbing civilians has long been the primary function of Indonesia’s valiant armed forces. Licences, Cook told the Today programme on 14 May, ‘have just been given for things like naval patrol boats, radar on the offshore oil rigs, offshore winches for the naval boats; those are not things that could conceivably be used in internal repression.’ Surely he knows better. Parliamentary answers indicate that Labour has agreed to the export of small arms, machine-guns, riot control agents (including teargas), computer surveillance equipment, body armour and toxological agents. (The logic that says, ‘well, if we didn’t do it someone else would,’ justifies the selling of Kalashnikovs to Continuity IRA and heroin to teenagers.)

As with Indonesia, so with the rest of the world. The bland paragraph on Algeria recognises ‘widespread concern over the appalling massacres’, but does not discuss the evidence that some massacres are being organised by the Algerian Government. (The EU depends on Algerian gas, much of it pumped by British Petroleum.) There are no condemnations of the theocratic tyranny imposed by the House of Saud: Britain and Saudi Arabia are partners in the biggest arms deal in history. Corporate leaders in the expanding Chinese market need have no fear that the Foreign Office will embarrass them by raising questions about persecuted trade unionists and dissidents. ‘Dialogue and practical co-operation’ is the best way forward, the Report concludes. Only Iraq and Burma, where Britain has no substantial business interests, are roundly condemned.

Meanwhile, Britain’s record at home is discussed with more than a touch of Peck-sniffery. There is not a word on the imprisonment of and denial of benefits to asylum-seekers, nor of the obstacles placed in the way of refugees trying to reach Heathrow – policies designed to deter the victims of oppression from seeking sanctuary in the UK. The Report acknowledges that Central European Gypsies face persecution and forgets to mention that when these same Gypsies tried to claim asylum in Dover, Jack Straw immediately, and without any evidence, labelled them bogus asylum-seekers, thereby helping to create an ugly racist atmosphere. In fairness, the Foreign Office can cite Labour’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights, the protection of national minorities and Cook’s support for a permanent UN criminal court to try war criminals, which Russia, China and US Congress oppose because the idea of foreigners dealing with soldiers and politicians who get over-eager in war is intolerable. It is better to have Cook in power than Douglas Hurd. But so what? Cook’s elevation does not justify arms deals and evasion.

This human rights Report is a sham. It is not merely insulting to the intelligence, but reveals how Old Britain survives for all the talk of constitutional reform. Congress requires the State Department to provide comprehensive audits. The American legislature holds the executive to account and, as Reed Brody from the New York-based Human Rights Watch says, it ensures that there is a tiny part of the imperial US polity bound by law to look at the victims of the regimes which its masters support. The Foreign Office rights audit is a sop from the British establishment, nothing more than Government puffery. The word is now being put out, incidentally, that the picture of Cook with Suharto was a mistake. Short spotted the image when she saw a draft version of the Report and said it should be cut. So, too, did Cook’s office. But as the Sierra Leone fiasco showed, the Foreign Office does not take a great deal of notice of Labour ministers. Both Cook and Short are furious that the photo appeared. It will be used against Cook for the rest of his career. In true New Labour fashion, what upsets the Government is bad PR, not bad policies.