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13 May 1998

New Labour's Gunboat Ethics

Barry Crawford from Africa Direct reflects on whether the Sierra Leone crisis reflects badly on New Labour's ethical foreign policy

The last fortnight has seen the British foreign office come under severe criticism for its involvement in a counter coup in Sierra Leone. The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, uncovered the dirty deed while surfing the net. And when the questions about the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair were first put to the foreign secretary Robin Cook, he squirmed and fudged. The prime minister Tony Blair maintained a stony silence and the Conservative press crowed. For a moment it appeared that a serious scandal was erupting - Britain had backed a mercenary operation in an African country in violation of international law. Senior heads looked set to role. That was until Blair's spin doctors realised that this counter-coup was widely perceived an intervention of which they could be proud.

Suddenly the whole approach changed. On Monday 11th May Blair described the affair as 'overblown' and a 'hoo-ha!'. "Come on, come on!" cried Cook the gladiator in the house of commons the day after, "I'm enjoying this, let's have another hour!". New Labour's revised message reads like this: Britain has reason to feel proud about taking principled and resolute action in defence of democracy in a suffering land. An apparently damaging scandal was turned into a heroic operation.

Conservative opinion has it that revelations about mercenary activities and covert preparations to overthrow governments harm the credibility of New Labour's ethical foreign policy. They couldn't be more wrong. This is ethical foreign policy at work, and among the circles that count, it is succeeding.

Cook is quoted as saying he knew nothing of the affair until 28 April and would not, as foreign secretary, have needed to know earlier. (Observer 10.5.98) In fact, within weeks of President Ahmad Tajan Kabbah's ousting from office by Johnny Koroma in May last year, Britain began preparations for his reinstatement. Cook claimed on June 5th last year that "The coup leaders have nowhere to go, they have no friends outside Sierra Leone, they have no friends among their neighbours, no friends in the region nor in Europe ... they must see that ultimately military force may be something that will have to be considered."

The real scandal here is not that the Foreign Office bent United Nations rules, nor that it failed to inform Customs and Excise of its deals. It is that New Labour has been up to its neck in a dirty war in a West African country. The counter-coup was not about restoring democratic government to Sierra Leone. It was about installing a government on British terms (although quiet support from the United States was also important). This was not about respecting the choice of the Sierra Leonean electorate, it was about installing Whitehall's man in Freetown.

Despite the widespread glamorising of the role of some mercenaries, especially Sandline International, the most important local actor in this affair was Nigeria. In fact Nigeria's role in Kabbah's reinstatement was so prominent that most commentators, especially African, saw the whole intervention as a Nigerian affair rather than the western coup it really was. For its part, Nigeria welcomed the invitation to front the intervention as an opportunity to overcome the isolation from the West which it has experienced on the basis of Western attacks on its human rights record.

Kabbah's first act as Sierra Leone's restored 'standard bearer of democracy' was to give the go-ahead to a breach of the constitution and institute rule by a military council for the first two months or so until he was ready to be installed in office. In Freetown, orders were given to shoot looters on sight.

There is little difference between New Labour's ethical foreign policy and the gunboat diplomacy for which Britain is famous. The principle ethic behind New Labour's foreign policy is that Britain has a moral duty to intervene in developing countries in order to civilise their inhabitants and teach them Western ways. It is because nobody questions the underlying assumption that countries like Sierra Leone are incapable of achieving democratic institutions without the helping hand of the West that interventions such as this one earn praise. For those of us who believe in the principles of equality and self determination, this intervention is more than a scandal, it is an outrage and an affront to democratic values.

Africa Direct can be contacted at africadirect@easynet.co.uk or by telephone: +44 (0) 973 326302

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