BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 07.10.01

Interview: CLARE SHORT MP, International Development Secretary.

In the war against terrorism how can we strike a balance between our national interest and our moral duty?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that we have morality on our side in the fight against terrorism. Most people would agree that it is in our national interest to combat terrorism. But can we really claim the moral high ground? After all, the coalition being assembled by George Bush and Tony Blair includes a number of countries that themselves harbour terrorists and that are guilty of serious human rights abuses. Then there's the question of refugees within Afghanistan, the aid agencies fear that they are suffering even more as a result of threatened military action. Well Clare Short is the International Development Secretary. Come to the question of the refugees in a moment if I may Ms Short, but this question about balancing national interest against our moral duty. It is difficult isn't it? CLARE SHORT: I think there are less contradictions than there used to be as the world has integrated to make the world safe for your country and even your country's business. You need a world where there is prosperity, where there is stability, where there isn't constant warfare, where there isn't the dangers of massive terrorist incidents. So, I mean I argue this, it's in my White Papers, it is in Britain's national interest to have much more development for the poor of the world. To remove injustice, to give people the chance to have a better life 'cause we'll have more stable world that uses the environment better, then the next generation from our own country will have a better future. So I think the contradictions are less, there are always contradictions but less than there used to be when the nation state was seen as much more separately, that you had to look after UK interests against all others. HUMPHRYS: But there are contradictions, or difficulties, use that word perhaps, in this situation that we now find ourselves in, aren't there. I mean if you look at our dealings with Pakistan at the moment, they are very different from what they were after the military coup in Pakistan. Then we cut off all military co-operation with them, we agreed that they should be suspended from the Commonwealth, now we are making friends with them again because it is in our national interest so to do. SHORT: No, I've argued ever since the military coup and this was a coup that was welcomed right across the Pakistan people, right across the people originating from Pakistan living in our own country, because both previous parties, so-called democratic governments had been horrendously corrupt, plundering the country. The economy was not going anywhere. There were no public services for the people and I have taken the view...there's a lot of technocrats and reformers being brought in to this government, that we needed to ensure that it was a transition to better economic management, better social policy and real democracy and we've been engaging with them in that kind of technical support. They've run local elections, a third of women elected in villages right across Pakistan that wouldn't have happened in the past. For the first time in the history of the country just completed an IMF programme. So my view is that both for the sake of the people of Pakistan and before this crisis, to prevent Pakistan imploding into a Talibanised type regime and Pakistan with an unresolved conflict with India over Kashmir, above countries nuclear capable, it was in our interest to engage with this military Pakistani government and help it be a reformer that brought Pakistan to proper democratic government rather than collapsing into the sort of chaos that would threaten everybody. HUMPHRYS: But there has been a clear change in our policy towards Pakistan and there are perfectly understandable reasons why that should be the case and you wouldn't suggest, would you, that we now like the Pakistani military regime if you look at what Amnesty International has said about the way it has behaved in the past year - human rights violations including torture and death in custody have increased and of course they are harbouring Taliban trained Kashmiri separatists, terrorists in many people's minds. It's a pretty unsavoury bunch of people. SHORT: I don't think that's true. I mean no country is perfect, I haven't seen the Amnesty report, I'm not aware of it, but I'm not aware of anyone alleging there's been sort of an increased abuse of human rights. The government in Pakistan is complying with its law, you know people are being treated with..under martial law, they've been engaging in serious economic reform, as I said they've just had these local elections, they've committed themselves to parliamentary elections by the date set down by their own court. They are a transitional, reforming regime, if they are a success and I believe it's in the interests of the people of Pakistan and in Britain and the world to help this military government be a transition to better governance in Pakistan. We were working at that right through...I mean the one change that's been made is military collaboration but all the rest, economic reform, increasing aid to help the reform process and better economic governance, I've been working on that for a long time. HUMPHRYS: Well, you may well have been but many people regarded them as a pretty unsavoury bunch of people but still, let's take another country - Iran.. SHORT: But you see people like to posture, don't they, military regime - bad. Well of course, nobody wants a military regime but what about totally corrupt plundering so-called democratic regime and that's what Pakistan had before. So you don't get perfection in this world but working with the change to get Pakistan to proper democracy, I think that's the right thing to do, in practice and in principle. HUMPHRYS: Even if it means chucking out a democratically and imperfectly elected as you say, and they are certainly an imperfect government, even if it means chucking them out with the military.. by the generals taking over? SHORT: But that's what happened and the people of Pakistan right across the country celebrated and the people of Pakistan origin in our country and there are quite a lot in my constituency, celebrated. We cut back all our aid programmes to review what we should do... HUMPHRYS: ...suspended them from the Commonwealth. SHORT: Indeed because it was a coup and then anyone looking hard-headedly at what had happened in Pakistan before and what could happen if things went wrong, if Pakistan became the pariah and the Talibanisation spread would be a disaster for Pakistan and the world and then engaging in supporting the reform effort to get Pakistan back to democracy and into better economic management was the right thing to do. HUMPHRYS: Alright, take Iran then, where Jack Straw went in order to improve our relations, again for entirely obvious reasons.. SHORT: And let's remember Robin Cook was planning a visit to Iran, so this isn't just on the back of this crisis, I can't remember now why it got cancelled, I think there was a trial but that's been planned for some time. There's been a lot of change taking place in Iran, a lot of big increase in the youth population, a lot of people voting in Iran for reform, again it's surely in the interests of the world for Iran to open up, to have better relationships with the rest of the world, not to be a pariah and cut off. HUMPHRYS: But this is one of those countries that harbours some of the very nastiest terrorist organisations, HAMAS, for instance. These are people who go into Israel and blow up children in pavement cafes, men, women and children in pavement cafes. Now, we are saying, we can do business with you in effect, and we are having to put that to one side for entirely pragmatic reasons, but it's a balance again, isn't it, it illustrates the balance between a moral approach and a pragmatic approach. SHORT: Well morality isn't perfection, as all of us, if, I mean, just let's be clear about what morality is, as each of us tries to be a moral human being in our own life. It doesn't mean we are all saints, it means we all keep trying to do the right thing, so you don't say, I can only have a relationship with a country if everything about it is perfect. Now in the case of Iran, it got cut off from the rest of the world, I don't personally have any detailed knowledge of support in an organisational way for groups engaged in terrorism in ... HUMPHRYS: No, but there is absolutely no question that they are... SHORT: ...against the Israelis, there's no doubt about that's the way they speak... HUMPHRYS: doubt at all, and they have not condemned Hezbollah and Hamas, that's the point, nobody in Iran ... SHORT: ...that's my understanding, but anyone who follows matters at all knows that a major change has been taking place in Iran, that the people have been voting for reform and liberalisation, that there's now a conflict in the regime between the reformers who do want to reform the economy and open up to the rest of the world and those who don't. Now surely, it's beneficial to Iranian people and the rest of the world to engage with the reformers and to hope that we can help Iran to join the community of nations and abide by all the conventions of the world in relation to terrorism and everything else. HUMPHRYS: I just wonder how you can say to... SHORT: I mean take China, it's the same issue. Pick, you know, there aren't free trade unions in China... HUMPHRYS:, we deal with China because it suits our national self-interest. SHORT: Well I don't take that view. I mean China is a fifth of humanity, its economy is now growing... HUMPHRYS: Might is right. SHORT: No, don't be so cynical. HUMPHRYS: No, it isn't. This isn't being cynical, it's being entirely practical. SHORT: No. Well. A fifth of humanity. In the last ten years the economic reforms they've engaged in have seen a vast reduction of poverty for some very very poor people. Think of what happened when China behind closed doors in the cultural revolution, in the great leap forward there was horrendous suppression. China's opening up, wants to grow its economy, joining the World Trade Organisation. We're engaged again with trying to help them reform and improve education and so on for their poorest people. Of course the way they treat religious minorities and so on, I completely disapprove of, but I think it's right to engage with China... HUMPHRYS: ...and political opponents with their regime... SHORT: ...indeed, but I think things are improving. I think they are a lot better than they were in the days of the cultural revolution. And I think it would be crazy to say no-one will talk to China as China is opening up and changing. I think we should engage and try and support the reform effort and China joining the community of nations. HUMPHRYS: I just wonder how you can reduce this to a human and understandable level. I mean, I may be wrong about this, but when people see the Prime Minister making a speech when he talks about the moral community and all the rest of it, moral order and the world community operating under a moral order - if you were the mother of a child who had been blown apart by a Hamas guerrilla in Israel for instance, wouldn't you be pretty cynical, you accused me of being cynical, wouldn't you be pretty cynical about that sort of language, and aren't we entitled to be at least sceptical... SHORT: ...I hope, I hope if I was that mother, we all understand when people are angry and very upset they want revenge and so on, but I hope if I was that mother I would say, I want this sort of thing to stop, I want to stop Israeli's killing Palestinians and young Palestinian suicide bombers killing young Israelis and I hope if I was that mother I'd say, how can we stop all this conflict and horror and mutual hurt, and how can we get a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis because in the end those two peoples have got to live with each other, and any wise mother that wanted further children not to be blown up would favour some kind of just settlement. That's what all the sensible people must back. HUMPHRYS: But if there aren't any moral absolutes, is it wise... SHORT: ...there are moral absolutes, they're very diff... HUMPHRYS: ...ah, you seem to be suggesting there aren't... SHORT:, no of course there are moral absolutes but... HUMPHRYS: are saying it all depends. SHORT: No I am not saying that. But I'm saying, each of us in our own personal life, let alone in foreign affairs, there are moral absolutes - thou shall not lie. Is there a journalist in the world that adheres to that? HUMPHRYS: I very much doubt it, although it depends how you define lying. SHORT: But it's still true we shouldn't lie, but there's big lies and small lies. HUMPHRYS: Right. SHORT: There's an absolute, but then we've all got to struggle to try and do the right thing. HUMPHRYS: So in other words it is relative isn't it? SHORT: No... HUMPHRYS: is relative. In which case it is risky for a Prime Minister to take a moral high ground without qualifying considerably, that's really the point I'm trying to make, doing what you've just done, and qualifying it and saying, well, you know, there are grey areas here. SHORT: Well my own view is that in this increasingly interdependent world our own national interest depends on a more stable and safe world, and to achieve that we have to really focus on the systematic reduction of poverty, the degree of inequality in the world is dangerous for the future. It leads to conflict, environmental degradation, the spread of diseases that come and hurt everyone, and similarly great injustice in the world that creates bitterness and conflict endangers all of us. So there's no doubt, I agree with analysis in Tony's speech, it's not easy to achieve it, of course not. HUMPHRYS: And it requires sacrifice from us. SHORT: It requires dedication and commitment to those objectives, and we can do better and more. We have put much more focus on the reduction of poverty. More needs to be done, Britain can't do it alone, but we need to mobilise the international system but we can do better. HUMPHRYS: If we are going to war for moral purposes, and that's the essence of our argument, and you've certainly said that in this interview, how do we square that fact with the fact, the ineluctable fact that there are going to be a vast number of people dying as a result of that war who are not involved in that war, who are entirely innocent in the best sense of that word? SHORT: I think it's now agreed and I think the delay in taking action and preparing for real action that breaks up this really monstrous terrorist network means that we are not going to all-out war, we are going to use all the different instruments we have, the exchange of information and therefore arresting people, money laundering, military action tightly focussed on those who are responsible for training and nurturing the terrorist activity and at the same time, we are engaging in a massive and humanitarian effort because the truth is, in Afghanistan, people are more in danger of dying from hunger than from any military activity. HUMPHRYS: And we increase that risk don't we by our military activity, even if it is, as you put it, focussed. Difficult to focus military activity as we discovered in Iraq at the .... SHORT: Actually before September the Eleventh the situation in Afghanistan was terribly serious. Three years of drought and all the years of war. HUMPHRYS: And it's even worse now. SHORT: And the behaviour of the Taliban which makes if very difficult for the UN to work, for women doctors, you know without the UN colluding in what they do we've had difficulty after difficulty. Before September the Eleventh I'd allocated more resources from the UK because of the situation, and the problem was to spend it inside Afghanistan because of all the difficulties they create. So the people of Afghanistan were in trouble because of the horrible government they've got and the same horrible government was nurturing forces that were spreading killing and disorder across the world. You can't leave that for the sake of what happened in America and what's happening in Afghanistan, so now we need intelligent action, we need to focus down on those who are responsible, we need to make sure we bring real relief to the people of Afghanistan and then of course the most hopeful scenario is a crumbling of the Taliban regime and there is some evidence of that. HUMPHRYS: Ah well. SHORT: And transition with limited military action. HUMPHRYS; Given that there is that possibility, that the regime will crumble as a result of the various things we've been doing, that have so far not involved military action, military build-up yes, but... SHORT: Preparation for it... HUMPHRYS: Indeed, the preparation has that intention, no doubt, but given that would it not make sense to say, well let's hold off a bit longer. However long it may take even, in the hope that it will collapse from within? SHORT: No, my own view is that now the strategy we've got is absolutely right, and that those who are deliberately training people and infecting them with hate and misrepresenting the teachings of Islam, killing civilians - I was in Kenya just after the bomb there too - hundreds of poor Africans were killed in that incident and many thousands of Indians. This has been going on systematically, he's building a network with a capacity to do this in more and more in more countries. For the sake of everyone, including the people of Afghanistan we've got to target all of that and take it apart,....but you've got to do it in a focussed way and absolutely avoid civilian casualties if you possibly can, and that is now the commitment. But the real risk of death in Afghanistan is hunger and therefore we've got to at the same time increase the food going in, and we are doing that, but we need to do even better. HUMPHRYS: But twenty international aid agencies, as you well know, have said don't attack until the aid is there. Chris Mullin said much the same in our film a few minutes ago, so surely there is an argument for holding off until you've got the aid there, and then it may even mean holding off a little bit longer in the hope that the regime collapses. SHORT: No, the Taliban have brought their people to this. The Taliban were saying local workers can't be on the telephone to UN agencies, the Taliban raided world food programme stores and took the food that was meant for hungry Afghans. There's no way you can say leaving it to them will help the poor of Afghanistan, we should do both, and the eighteen aid agencies made an appeal to everyone including the Taliban and the Northern Alliance to cease any military activity. Now that would be lovely, but I don't think it's very likely to happen and therefore what we've got to do in the real world is both stop the people who are planning the horror of the sorts of events that took place in America and get food through to the people, and that's what we're working on... HUMPHRYS: The UNHCR says... SHORT: And I'm increasingly confident that we will succeed. HUMPHRYS: But the UNHCR says doing the sort of things that we're doing at the moment does risk increasing the number of refugees, perhaps by a million and a half people SHORT: That's the UN appeal, positive that. Actually the number of people moving..... HUMPHRYS: Well, I spoke to someone from the UNHCR just yesterday. He confirmed that figure. SHORT: Yes, that's the figure in the appeal, but actually the number of people who've been moving out of Afghanistan has been less than was expected. HUMPHRYS: So far. We haven't started fighting yet. SHORT: Well we haven't started our targeted military action. We all expected far more people to flow out across all the borders. There were more people out of Afghanistan in the war between Russia and the local people than there are at the moment. We have to prepare for that and we've got camps for that, but we've got to get more and more food into the country and we've been getting in this last week five hundred thousand tonnes a week in, and we want to double that in this next week and if we can achieve that we're getting in the kind of stores that are needed to feed the people of Afghanistan through the winter. HUMPHRYS: Clare Short, thanks very much indeed. SHORT: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.