Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Mr Carne Ross, Director, Independent Diplomat



  1.  I was a member of the FCO from 1989 to 2004, when I resigned after giving evidence to the Butler review. As a member of the so-called "fast stream" of the Diplomatic Service, I served, inter alia, as head of the Middle East Peace Process section (1995-97), speechwriter to the Foreign Secretary (1997-98), and First Secretary (Political) at the UK Mission to the UN, New York, where I was responsible for the Middle East, and in particular Iraq (1998-2002). I served briefly in Afghanistan after the US/UK invasion and was seconded to the UN mission in Kosovo in 2003-04. By the time I resigned, I had joined the Senior Management Structure of the FCO.

  2.  Most of my work in New York dealt with Iraq and in particular Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections and sanctions. The evidence I gave to the Butler review explained three concerns: that the government's public presentation of the evidence on WMD did not accurately reflect its own internal information or assessments; that the government had not properly considered or attempted available alternatives to invasion, such as the use of strictly-targeted sanctions on the Saddam regime; that the UK's conduct at the UN Security Council in the run-up to the invasion amounted to deceit, and that its invasion was, in the light of the many resolutions on Iraq that I had helped negotiate (and in particular that establishing UNMOVIC), unlawful. My evidence to Butler is not public, but my unclassified views on the issue were explained in a long article in the Financial Times in January 2005, attached as the first annex to this evidence. [1]

  3.  Since my resignation I have founded the world's first non-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat, which gives advice and assistance in diplomacy from a global network of diplomatic experts and lawyers to marginalised or inexperienced governments and political groups, including the governments of Kosovo and Somaliland, and the Polisario Front of the Western Sahara. The aim of Independent Diplomat is to reduce the risk of conflict by helping those denied a voice to be heard in the closed forums of international diplomacy.


  4.  The FCO strategy document is written at a level of generality and vagueness that risks platitude. Its predictions about the future are common knowledge: climate change, accelerating globalisation, migration, energy security etc. Its prescriptions for addressing that future are vague—strong relationships, a robust international system, etc (example (p 17): "the international community need[s] to reduce conflict, make globalisation work for the poor and provide new resources for development"). Like an oil slick, the opaque words of this document help conceal the troubled if not disastrous reality of British foreign policy today, and certainly discourages, perhaps deliberately, informed parliamentary and public debate.

  5.  One striking example of the paper's character is that it makes only glancing reference to Britain's military occupation of two countries—Afghanistan and Iraq. [2]This is not because the paper refers only to the future: there are for instance descriptions of the UK's EU and G8 Presidencies, or the UK's role in negotiating Turkish accession to the EU. By this vagueness, even obfuscation, the paper obscures a number of serious policy and systemic issues in current British foreign policy:


  6.  When I joined the FCO, I was taught that British diplomacy stood for international law and a "world of rules", regardless of which political party was in government. "Active Diplomacy" makes similar claims. International law was undermined by the invasion of Iraq. One of Britain's primary diplomatic tools is its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the pre-eminent arbiter of law on war and peace. The authority of the Council is today weaker: witness our inability to impose the necessary UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, or the Council's vacillation over the nuclear danger in Iran. Similarly, it may prove difficult to persuade the Council to endorse the necessary independence of Kosovo this year or early next. Although each of these issues is complex, underpinning all of them is a reversal in the late 1990's momentum toward international acquiescence if not endorsement of intervention, and law-based activism—a trend which, at the time, Britain led. Thanks in part to our own behaviour, we have stepped back toward an international culture of Hobbesian "might is right".

  7.  The ill-named Global War on Terror or "GWOT" has contributed to this trend. The UK acquiesced in a US approach which from 2001 dismissed international law as an impediment to what needed to be done to stop terrorists, and has established living repudiations to human rights law, such as Guantanamo Bay and the practice of "extraordinary rendition". I negotiated for the UK the 12 September 2001 UN Security Council resolution condemning the attacks of the day before. Never had I seen such solidarity with the US (and with those, like Britain, whose citizens were also killed). The metaphor of war rather than law has damaged the law without advancing the war. US tactics, in which the UK is complicit, have legitimised the terrorists and increased their support. Our alliance in this "war" with "friendly" but undemocratic Arab regimes (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, to mention only a few) has permitted their abuse of human rights and deepened the popular suspicion that our interests in this region are purely selfish. Associated with this is the collapse of any sense of direction or conviction over Israel-Palestine. In contrast to all its predecessors since 1967, the government barely mentions that the core issue is one of occupation and the need for international law (in particular Security Council resolutions 242 and 338) to be implemented. This inconsistency is present elsewhere, for instance in how we treat those who breach the Non-Proliferation Treaty (in particular the strange triplets India, Pakistan and Israel), and indeed our own commitments under that treaty. This inconsistency undermines UK authority across the board and feeds the accusation of "double standards" in our approach to international law.

  8.  Glimpses of this loss of conviction can paradoxically be seen in otherwise praiseworthy British initiatives, such as the FCO's pursuit of a global treaty on small arms. Such treaties will not solve the world's problems and our support for them has nugatory effect in comparison to the damage wrought by our actions elsewhere. What might help stabilise a turbid world is a return to a law-based but active approach to crises, such as Sudan and Israel-Palestine, building on the trend of international opinion epitomised in the "Responsibility to Protect" agreed by all 191 states at the UN in 2005. At present, such declarations are weak. They can only be made strong if those who offer themselves as the protectors of international law—such as the FCO in this paper—live by its rules, and implement them consistently.


  9.  Contributing to these policy failures are four systemic problems in foreign policy-making in the UK. Policy-making in the UK government and the FCO in particular remains a "closed box". Ministers are but the tip of the iceberg of decision-making. Officials are anonymous and unaccountable. Foreign policy now touches on more and more issues in our domestic lives (food standards, climate change, terrorism), yet policy is still decided by small groups of officials invisible to the public in whose name they are acting. This lack of transparency and accountability risks bad policy. Indeed, the greater the range of what is included today in "foreign policy", the more likely are poor decisions within the closed box. The FCO's talk of transparency, "open days" and public meetings merely scratches the surface.

  10.  Meanwhile, thinking about foreign policy in the British government and civil service remains dominated by state-centric notions of a world order based on states and their institutions, as well as the arbitrary and indeed invented calculus of "interests". All evidence however points to more divers and chaotic forces at work in the 21st century, from non-state violence to global warming. While paying lip-service to these factors, the FCO remains deeply attached to state-based solutions to these problems, agreeing treaties and discussing problems in forums which are ever more disconnected from reality. To affect events in another country, whether human rights in China or corruption in Angola, any actor needs to work in coalition not only with other governments, but also with business, NGOs and an expanding range of other non-state actors. With its extensive resources, government can lead such coalitions. But there is little evidence that the FCO is actively doing this.

  11.  While decision-making remains in the closed box, parliamentary scrutiny is negligible. In my career, which dealt with issues ranging from the Middle East peace process to the invasion of Afghanistan, I was not once interrogated or in any way scrutinised by the Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee's series of reports on the Iraq war stand as acute evidence of this failure to scrutinise. Inside the FCO, the recommendations of the FAC are given little attention. The FCO will politely pretend otherwise, but it is in reality able to carry on its business without fear of significant intrusion. Parliamentary questions, foreign affairs debates and occasional single topic debates, are straightforward for officials and ministers to fob off with stock and bromidic answers, and thus form a kind of theatre—a sham of democratic accountability, when in reality there is none. This is not a criticism of the current government. It was always so. [3]But the consequences today are more dangerous.

  12.  Something has happened to the FCO in the course of the failures since 2001. It has become both marginalised and politicised. The FCO would vehemently rebut this, but promotion to senior positions has been in part based on the political sympathies of officials. Those closely associated with Number Ten, and who are seen to be sympathetic to the Prime Minister's prejudices, are swept up into senior positions. The FCO has been reduced to an entirely subordinate role (its lack of confidence and imagination is amply illustrated in "Active Diplomacy"). Another consequence is easy to predict: officials increasingly tell ministers what they wish to hear. The culture of official impartiality, and the ability of officials to tell ministers necessary truths, is undermined. The time may have come to make a virtue of this reality, and shift to a US system whereby senior civil service positions are politically-appointed. This is the de facto situation in any case.


  13.  In "Active Diplomacy" and in general, the FCO and government proclaim their knowledge of the world and ability to deal with its challenges: here is the world, they say, and here is how we intend to deal with it. It is an illusion comforting to those in government and the public alike. The evidence however suggests that parliament—and indeed the public—is unwise to accord them this responsibility unquestioned. The last few years have been disastrous for British foreign policy, and no one is held to account. [4]The edifice of human rights law and norms, which took half a century of careful work to construct, has been undermined by those who claim to defend it. Maybe 500,000 people have died in Iraq and the rage that fuels terrorism against us has been amply stoked. Meanwhile, the US/UK invasion of Afghanistan, which was legitimate under Article 51 of the UN charter (self-defence), is now risking failure, because too few troops were deployed in the first place. This was very evident from the beginning. When I served in Kabul immediately after the Taliban feel, I was told then by British officers that forces were being held back for Iraq—this was in April 2002. If this adventure fails too, our security will be endangered further. But perhaps worse is that we will have failed the inhabitants of both countries to whom we have both a legal duty—under the Geneva conventions—and moral obligation.

  14.  We are so inured to the rhetoric of anti-terrorism and macho posturing about building democracy while fostering chaos, that it is hard to imagine an alternate direction for British foreign policy. But it is available, as it always was. This alternative lies in consistency of application of international law and a robust defence (including intervention when necessary, as in Kosovo and Sierra Leone) of those under assault or oppression. It lies in remedy to the "diplomatic deficit" whereby those affected by our—and others'—foreign policy have no capacity to influence it while those in whose name policy is carried out—us, the public—also have scant means to affect it. Together, such changes will produce a more just and therefore more stable world. [5]

  15.  The whole discourse of what is important in foreign policy tends to work off a US agenda: Iran, North Korea etc which, while important, attract diplomatic energy to the detriment of other worthwhile issues. A distinctive and positive British foreign policy is possible, for instance on Israel-Palestine, or the Horn of Africa, which in part through international neglect is now descending once more into chaos and war. In little-noticed Kosovo, the UK is playing a very constructive role in bringing that last piece of the Balkans puzzle to stability. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has a unique ability to improve the credibility of that damaged institution, including by encouraging its reform. In the Security Council and more broadly, the world needs an international system that gives a legitimate voice to all those affected by others' foreign policy (that means not just states). This is the goal Independent Diplomat is working towards. The Prime Minister himself has claimed that Britain stands by the oppressed, wherever they are. It is not too late for the policy reality to match that rhetoric, but it does require change, perhaps even a revolution.

Carne Ross

6 November 2006

1   Not reproduced. Back

2   There is a vague reference to "international engagement" in Iraq on p19. Perhaps in recognition of the allied failures in these countries, we are told of the establishment of a "post conflict reconstruction unit" on p 31. There is a reference to Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan (p 49). Back

3   There is need for a deeper debate about the nature of parliamentary scrutiny of foreign policy. Any committee led by a member of the governing party is inevitably less inclined to the aggressive scrutiny necessary. The British committee system is also much less well resourced, for research and investigation for instance, than its US equivalents. Back

4   It is not only the current administration which is blameworthy in this regard. Those officials and ministers responsible for Britain's disgraceful inaction over Bosnia, for instance, have also escaped scrutiny and accountability for their roles. Indeed, many have received promotion and public honours. Back

5   This argument is elaborated in the second attached article, "We must hear the unheard for a more stable world" Financial Times, 6 April 2006. Back

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