British Secretary of State, William Hague, is a delight to listen to. Even more when he dismisses an uncomfortable question hurled at him. One would imagine that on any given day, a smirk laced with a dismissive sense of authority, an impassive gaze and a stern pitch would do the trick for the veteran politician. But then again, there are a few unusual days when this ruse leaves the foreign minister with his defense exposed, often begging for more explanations.
The Fullerton Lecture in Singapore this year was one of those infrequent occasions for the Secretary of State. For most of the lecture, Hague spoke eloquently on Britain's role in Asia and how he was close on the heels of British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent visit to the region, advocating closer ties with Britain.
He proclaimed a sense of equal partnership between Britain and Asia, UK's respect for Asia's emerging economies, free trade agreements and rattled off with ease a predictable diplomatic spiel. He even managed to remind us in between his volley of oriental appreciation, that 2012 was Her Majesty, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and that Asia could look forward to welcoming 'their Royal Highnesses,' the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sometime later this year.
But barely a few minutes into hailing the royalty, Hague announced that he represented the first generation of Britons who did not remember the days of the Empire. So much for toadying the royalty.
Then again there was something that Hague was not telling us, something that got drowned amidst pandering questions and intellectual pretense. A matter that Hague would have wished was never discussed at all. So off went the uncomfortable question flying towards the foreign minister. I am sorry Mr. Hague, I had no choice but to do this to you.
"Prime minister David Cameron was in Asia a couple of weeks ago selling British Defense equipment to Indonesia, in what the prime minister described as selling the best defense armaments to one of the world's most important democracies. We are already living in turbulent times. Why, then, does Britain want to play a role in the arms race in Asia? And was it really that easy for Britain to condone Indonesia's usage of British Hawk jets in bombing innocent civilians in East Timor? "
Pin drop silence in the hall with William Hague frozen on his seat. But quickly came back a sneering retort. "Well, thank you very much for that nice and friendly question. Always get that from journalists. Very helpful," remarked the Secretary of State.
Uh, should I have asked you about your favorite Asian delicacy instead, Mr. Hague? Perhaps that would not have bothered you as much. Nevertheless, I am going to dissect your puerile answer into as many fractions as possible and match every statement of yours with nothing but core historical facts.
"Countries have a right to defend themselves and so do democracies. There is nothing wrong in principle for a country that has as enormous expertise as we do in aerospace, in trading its technology with other nations," began Hague.
Wait a minute. Did I hear you say trading aerospace technology? That implies fighter jets, right Mr. Hague? Not surprising that the Guardian reported last year that there were reports of Britain negotiating with Indonesia to sell 24 Eurofighter Typhoons in a £2bn deal. Anyway, let's hear more of your answer.
"We have one of the most rigorous systems of scrutiny. Our arms exports with any other country in the world are at par with the rest of the E.U."
You don't want us to believe that, do you? Is that why in 2011 David Cameron took representatives from leading British Defense firms with him when he toured the Middle East at the height of the Arab Spring? And surely being in tandem with the rest of the E.U. means being among the top defense manufacturers in the world along with Germany, France and Russia and selling armaments to repressive regimes. Correct?
Well, no wonder that your prime minister was reported to be accompanied to Indonesia by representatives from six arms companies, including BAE Systems and Agusta Westland.
This might just amuse you, Mr. Hague. BAE Systems, British Hawk jets, Indonesia, nineties, innocent civilians, murder, murder, murder and John Pilger's film Death of a Nation. Does that ring a bell somewhere? It does, right?
Let's jog down the memory lane together. In June 1993, British Aerospace (BAE) signed a deal with Indonesia to supply 24 Hawk ground-attack aircrafts. Indonesia already had many of these jets, which were sold to them as early as 1978. It is believed to have rampantly used these jets to attack many East Timorean villages during its occupation over the country.
Nobel Laureate and East Timor and peace activist Jose Ramos Horta said in 1996 that entire villages and tribes of indigenous people had been completely wiped out. This action clearly amounted to genocide. Even British peace activist Angie Zelter put on record that in December 1995 Hugh O'Shaughnessy, a journalist working for the Observer, spotted a Hawk aircraft flying over East Timorean capital, Dilli.
In the massacres that followed, countless were killed by Indonesian forces in East Timor while British jets and armaments were used like toys by the then regime, which had a contemptible human rights record.
Thus, I am left to wonder here what due diligence is done at your end before you sell arms to Middle Eastern regimes and nations that have no respect for human rights and abuse their defense capabilities.
"We have European and national consolidated criteria for arms export controls. We have very clear requirements and do not export arms where we believe there is a risk that will contribute to regional tensions or to internal repression," added Hague.
Oh, but we've been hearing that for decades, Mr. Hague. It's the same old broken record playing over and over again. You see, Angie Zelter categorically wrote in "Civil Society and Global Responsibility: The Arms Trade and East Timor," that in the mid-nineties British Alvis tanks were used during an assault on students in Ujung Pandang and South Sulawesi and British Glover Webb water cannons were used to break up peaceful protests in Bandung in West Java by the then Indonesian regime.
But that did not stop the British Hawk jets from being sold to Indonesia then and today. Despite the bloody uprising in the Arab world, Prime Minister David Cameron could not be stopped from making a sales pitch to Middle Eastern regimes. So does your theory of consolidated criteria truly hold any water at all?
"Those assessments have to be kept updated, of course. They do change over time, which means references to historical events do not always determine what we are doing today. I think it is entirely right and appropriate to have that trade and indeed other leading nations in the world do as well. I will encourage other nations to adopt standards in line with ours," said Hague.
Oh, the Indonesia-East Timor narrative is passé then. Times have changed and guns can be reloaded and traded again, I guess. If that be true, then why did Human Rights Watch write a letter to Prime Minister Cameron in April this year, expressing concerns over the possibility of British defense equipment being used by Indonesia to suppress people in the Papua region? It even urged the British government to publicly press for an agreement that British equipment would not be used for repression of Indonesia's own citizens. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) had a strong rebuke ready for the British government, as well.
I guess every part of your answer gives rise to many unanswered questions, Mr. Hague. Every statement within it beckons a sincerer and truthful response. Your diplomatic spiel is charming, no doubt, but it does not stop us from digging deeper into the situation.
Yes, us journalists will always ask you uncomfortable questions, primarily for the sake of truth and in the interest of civic society. I suggest you get used to it or invent another ploy.