Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Minister, may I warmly welcome you to the Committee for our annual discussion on the Annual Human Rights Report, this one being the third in the series—the first in April 1998, the second in July 1999 and this current one in July of this year. I welcome with you Dr Carolyn Browne, who is Head of Human Rights Policy Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Mr Tony Brenton, who is a Director, Global Issues. We welcome submissions to the Committee by a number of outside organisations in respect of the report, and we are particularly pleased with the comment in the submission to the Committee by Amnesty International that they recommend that the practice of producing a human rights annual report is an important contribution to public debate that should be continued. I assume, Minister, that it is the intention of the Foreign Office to continue to produce such reports?

  (Mr Hain) Certainly.

  2. They also recommend that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee should maintain its practice of annually taking evidence from the Minister of State on the subject. So far as this Committee is concerned, I am confident that that will indeed be the practice. It is something which we value, and we have given a very high profile to human rights in our several reports.
  (Mr Hain) We value it as well, Chairman. I cannot say we always enjoy it, but we value it.

  3. Minister, the suggestion of producing this Annual Report on Human Rights came shortly after the euphoria of the election victory in 1997 and in the context of the "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. That seems to have gone off the boil a little. We did not hear any mention of ethical dimension in the Foreign Secretary's speech to Chatham House, and I have not heard Ministers recently talking about the ethical dimension. Why has the Government gone cool on the concept?
  (Mr Hain) We have not gone cool on the concept at all of a foreign policy based on a strong commitment to human rights, and pursuing it wherever we can and whenever we can, and an ethical dimension to foreign policy in that context. What we have, however, been concerned with is this obsessive misinterpretation, in the media especially, of what was a misrepresented term when the Foreign Secretary first announced it; he said that there would be an ethical dimension to our foreign policy, which there has been, and I think we have a very fine record in that respect. What he did not say was that you could have an identikit ethical foreign policy applied regardless of circumstances around the world. You had to do the best you could, and I think we have done that.

  4. With respect, you yourself delivered certain reservations in an interview with the New Statesman which was published on 3 April, where you said, and I quote: "I think, if there was a mistake made, it was in allowing the policy" (that is the policy on the ethical dimension) "to be presented as if we could have perfection." So who so presented it in that way?
  (Mr Hain) I think it was the media. I think the media took that phrase, thought that we could operate, as it were, to perfection in an imperfect world—when you have to set priorities and have different opportunities for engagement on human rights matters—and the whole thing became a ridiculous debate, which has detracted from our record. Our record, whether it is on subjecting arms exports to very stringent criteria or in terms of our ambassadors and high commissioners projecting human rights in their countries, the decisions we have taken from banning land mines, leading the way on overseas aid and development, assistance and debt relief—on all of these issues, which are crucial to human rights' development across the world, I think we have a very fine record. That record ought to be judged on its merits not on, as I say, an obsessive preoccupation with a phrase.

  5. You are citing important particulars, and I imagine that the Committee would be with you on those important particulars. However, in that same New Statesman interview you said this: "The immensity of what it connoted has been too great to bear." That is, as if you would rewrite history if you could and not trumpet the ethical dimension in the way it was done in the early months after the election in May 1997. Do you regret that grand fanfare at the time?
  (Mr Hain) I think you may find, Chairman, that that phrase you quoted from the interview does not sound a familiar phrase coming out of my mouth; I think it may have been the—

  6. That was the distillation of what John Lloyd, the editor, thought you were saying.
  (Mr Hain) Indeed. He is a very good journalist, but those are his words not mine. I think the Foreign Secretary would want to stand by his commitment—as I would in supporting him—as stated on coming into office, that we intended to pursue a foreign policy that put human rights right at the heart of it. We have done that.

  7. Your judgment is that it was not a hostage to fortune and that you would do the same in the same terms now as you did in the euphoria of 1997?
  (Mr Hain) I do not think it is a question of being euphoric, I think it is a question of committing ourselves to a foreign policy which was principled and put human rights at the top of the agenda. If we had anticipated the, as I say, obsessive way in which the media, as it were, turned every little genuflection of policy against a criteria of perfection, often in a distorted fashion, we might have gone about things in a different fashion. I do not know.

  8. Why has the phrase "ethical dimension" not been used for, perhaps, the last two years? Has it been lost from the Foreign Office vocabulary list?
  (Mr Hain) No. Indeed, I had a discussion yesterday in Berlin with my opposite number, the Deputy Foreign Minister, and we actually had it under the title of the British Ambassador arranged fully advertised an ethical foreign policy debate, which we did, and it was a very good debate. So I do not think there is any retreat from the principles, just a regret that it is very difficult in today's climate of reporting to get to the substance of issues, when people spinning like made—journalists spinning like mad—get all preoccupied—

Mr Mackinlay

  9. Journalists spinning? Come off it!
  (Mr Hain) I think journalists spinning. There are no spin doctors in the Foreign Office that I know about.

Sir Peter Emery

  10. Good morning, Mr Hain. We will not continue on that line because we would be in a great deal of disagreement. Can I turn to the Foreword of the report where, in dealing with human rights, it is written (and for the sake of accuracy I will read the quotation): ". . . there will be times where confrontation is the only option left . . . there are cases where isolation is the right course. There will be other times when critical engagement, dialogue and encouragement is more likely to produce results." Is it really the case that confrontation is only an option where the country is, perhaps, militarily or economically unimportant? Is isolation really likely to be considered, when the United Kingdom has considerable economic interests in that country? I wonder if you would explain where the differences come and why they arise?
  (Mr Hain) I think it starts from the presumption, which I am sure we would all share, Sir Peter, that you do not seek confrontation, especially if it requires military intervention, as in Iraq, Kosovo or Bosnia. We seek to pursue foreign policy by the alternative means that have been described and are well-known. If confrontation has to come then it has to come, as we have been ready to do as a Government in Kosovo, in Iraq and in Sierra Leone. As for isolation, again, it is not a preferred outcome, we would prefer a stance of critical engagement; if you get a country like Burma, which does not want to have a critical dialogue and refuses to recognise the concerns of the international community over human rights abuses and of a junta nullifying a democratic election and so on, then isolation is the only option—as for example was historically proved to be valid in South Africa's case.

  11. You mentioned Burma. I gather Mr John Battle was in Vientiane where there were a whole host of Burmese Government officials. Can you tell me whether Mr Battle actually had any dealings with the Burmese officials?
  (Mr Hain) I think the event to which you are referring is the European Union and ASEAN conference.

  12. That is right.
  (Mr Hain) Indeed, he felt it appropriate and the Foreign Office thought it correct to make sure that we were represented at his senior ministerial level to make sure that our arguments in the context of that conference were put face-to-face across the table, in the context of the conference, with the Burmese representatives there. We put them very forcefully, as we have continued to do whenever we have had the opportunity.

  13. Are you not open to the possible criticism that this is a change of policy, and that instead of complete isolation you are actually getting into a semi-negotiating position?
  (Mr Hain) No, what happened there was not a negotiation, it was an exchange of views and, in John Battle's case, very forthrightly expressed.

  14. But not isolation.
  (Mr Hain) We have still sought to take measures, which may be seeking to persuade British businesses not to invest in Burma because it simply props up the regime, but we have still pursued a strategy of isolation. That does not mean to say we do not ever miss an opportunity to put a strong message across, which we did in that case.

  15. Let us go to the other extreme: let us think about human rights for women in Saudi Arabia. We do not really have much confrontation or isolation or take any positive action in trying to deal with that, do we?
  (Mr Hain) We actually take a lot of opportunity, because we have a good relationship with the Saudi regime, in managing to put our views very strongly on human rights abuses and the position of women, especially, in Saudi Arabia, because we have a relationship of critical dialogue in which they are prepared to listen, prepared to respect the arguments put to them and, in some cases, prepared to take action. Although the picture is still very serious there, I think that is in stark contrast to, say, Iraq or Burma or in the case of Milosevic Serbia, where you just cannot have a dialogue with anyone.

  16. Let us go to somewhere in the middle. Let us talk about human rights in Chechnya. We do not really seem to be putting much pressure on the Russian Government in dealing with that. The whole aspect of policy seems to be, from the Government, to ignore it.
  (Mr Hain) Again, Sir Peter, I do not think that is true. Indeed, the reporting of the meetings between our Prime Minister and President Putin show that Chechnya was raised very vigorously, and, indeed, in the Foreign Secretary's meeting with President Putin and with the Foreign Minister Ivanov earlier this year; Chechnya actually took up three-quarters of the Foreign Secretary's meeting. So we put our point of view very strongly. Indeed, as a result of the pressure we put on Russia they set up an independent national commission to investigate human rights abuses, they agreed to the attachment of three Council of Europe experts and they agreed to the Office of the Russian Presidential representative on human rights in Chechnya, and they agreed to the ICRC having access to detainees, including those held in filtration camps. That does not negate the fact that the picture of human rights abuses in Chechnya was and still is desperate.

  17. You are not claiming that it was the British Government that brought about all these actions, when one looks at what other European nations and what the European Union were doing generally?
  (Mr Hain) We were acting as part of the European Union, of course, but in our bilateral contacts our arguments were put very forcefully. I think the fact that they were put to a new president very early on—in the Prime Minister's case before he was actually elected, when he was effectively de facto President during the election campaign—in a spirit of constructive engagement, I think, had a considerable impact. However, I do not deny that the human rights abuses in Chechnya, nevertheless, are continuing at a level which is totally unacceptable.

  18. In your answer to my last question you were summing up that we will take positive action where the nation is weak or unimportant to us, but that where the nation is not then we have to be a little more careful.
  (Mr Hain) I do not think that is true in the case of Iraq, for example. Iraq is very important strategically, and in other ways and as part of British historical connection. If I could respond to your question—and I understand why you are asking the questions, because these are difficult issues to get right—I do not believe that a "one-size-fits-all" policy is the right one for every country; that you can, as it were, take it out of a box and apply it equally to Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Burma. You have to do your best in order to put your case, and in order to get the desired outcome. I would be very interested to know whether—whether it is from you or whether it is from the Committee's deliberations—there is a better policy for any of these countries. If the Committee came up and said "We think the Foreign Office was wrong and the Government was wrong and that we think" (I do not know, I am not suggesting you would say this because this is a very serious Committee of experts) "that Russia should have been invaded to save the Chechens from human rights abuses." If that was a serious suggestion, and I am sure it would not be, or if there was a better strategy for dealing with these countries than the ones which we have adopted we would be very pleased to hear them. We regard you as partners in getting a better foreign policy.

  19. What you are saying is that you have to be practical in every case and make a different judgment, irrespective of what your overall principle may be.
  (Mr Hain) No, our overall principle, including our commitment to human rights, is very high up at the top of our foreign policy agenda. We have to look at how we can practically apply it and get results.

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