TOPICS > Politics

Newsmaker: Robin Cook

February 10, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Robin Cook has been in Washington this week, discussing European issues with Clinton administration officials. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

ROBIN COOK, Foreign Secretary, Great Britain: Good evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we turn to European issues, let me ask you about the Afghan Airlines hijacking, which was just resolved today. What has your government learn the today about the motives of the hijackers? I mean, were they looking for political asylum, the way some of the passengers apparently were?

ROBIN COOK: Well, to be honest, it’s confusing as to what they thought they were doing. They at no stage made a real political demand. You’re right, a number have apparently said that they’re going to apply for political asylum. We’ll process that as we are obliged to do under international conventions. We’re signed up with that. We’ll give them a fair hearing. At the same time, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t get into business of rewarding hijackers. We’ve got very clearly a policy of being strong, robust against hijackers, we can’t get into a system in which those who hijack can then hope to get political asylum.

MARGARET WARNER: So no promises were made at all to resolve this by your government?

ROBIN COOK: No, our position is that we all talk down those who are carrying out a hijack, but we’re not going to negotiate, we’re not going to give commitments and we’re certainly not going to reward hijackers. And I would say, Margaret, I think those who have talked through at the end of this hijack episode do deserve a lot of credit for having secured an end to the ordeal of those on the plane, and to have done so without any loss of life. And I think we’re all relieved at that.

MARGARET WARNER: But you seem to be suggesting when you don’t want to reward the hijackers that giving political asylum is a sort of reward.

ROBIN COOK: Political asylum is something we deal with in a quasi judicial way. We certainly make sure that we’ve fulfilled our international obligations. Therefore, we will, as we’re obliged to do, look at each case on its merits and come to a view on each case and its merits. But on the face of it, it’s hard to believe somebody got on a plane in one town in Afghanistan with a ticket to take them to another town in Afghanistan, intending two or three days political asylum in Britain, it doesn’t quite stack up.

MARGARET WARNER: That seems a rather round about way to do it. All right. Let’s talk turn to Northern Ireland. Your government – the British government — is threatening to suspend the new provincial government in Northern Ireland, a new coalition, tomorrow. Now, why? Explain briefly kind of for American viewers why that is.

ROBIN COOK: Well, first of all, we don’t want o to suspend them. We created these institutions, we’re proud of them, we worked hard to do it, we want them to continue. The only reason we are looking at the suspension of these institutions is because the whole of the package on which they are based has not been honored. Part of that package was that the IRA would decommission their weapons. And it was on that understanding that the unionists went into the institution and have worked to make it a success. I’m sorry to say at this moment in time we do not have a clear commitment from the IRA to carry out that obligation to decommission their weapons. And us we get a convincing and credible commitment from them, we don’t have any alternative but to suspend the institutions, because the package as a whole is not being met. We’re not going to give up on the peace process. I think what Tony Bair has done there is remarkable. What we now must make sure is we continue their work and try to find a way forward.

MARGARET WARNER: So what specifically would you need to see by tomorrow to stay this threat?

ROBIN COOK: We need a response from the IRA to the many pleas that have been made to them, not just by the British government, but also by the Irish government, but bishops of the Catholic Church, but John Hume, who is well-known for his commitment in up the peace process and getting it underway. And they’ve all asked the same of the IRA — come forward and give us that clear commitment that you will decommission your arms, and do it in a way that’s convincing. Now, in the whole two years since the Good Friday Agreement, we’ve never had that commitment from the IRA; we need it now.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, faults your government, it says you have essentially gone along with the Ulster Unionists in setting up a phony deadline, that isn’t in any of the peace agreements.

ROBIN COOK: The deadline that was in the Good Friday Agreement was 22nd of May. And that of course was a deadline by when it was to be completed. Now, if we haven’t even got a date in which it’s going to start, the deadline for completion looks very dubious indeed. Unless they come forward and tell us how, when they’re going to start decommissioning their weapons, that deadline of 22nd May does not look credible. And to be fair to the Unionists, they have entered into the executive, they took part in elections, they took their seats as ministers, they’ve tried to make it work throughout that entire time – their leadership has constantly had pressure from grassroots saying you’re doing this without a single weapon having been handed in. Right up until now they’ve gone ahead to try and make it work. We can’t delay any longer. We do not at least that commission to decommissioning, and it’s got to be credible.

MARGARET WARNER: And what’s your reading of Sinn Fein and IRA? Do you think they’re serious about ever disarming?

ROBIN COOK: I don’t know, only they can answer that question. And I very much regret the fact that they have not given us an answer throughout all this time.

MARGARET WARNER: And so if you do end up suspending this provincial government, then what?

ROBIN COOK: We will work to find ways in which we can take this forward, we’ll look at ways in which we can get decommissioning actually happening on a clear, credible timetable. We’ll work with the Irish and American governments to see how we can get out of this crisis. That’s why what we’re talking about is not abolition of the assembly or executive, it is suspension. It is a pause, but we need that in order that we can resolve what threatens now to be the one failure to deliver, which could undo the whole package.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s turn to Austria. The European Union and the other members have imposed diplomatic isolation of sorts on Austria for including this far-right leader in the governing coalition. What is the EU really trying to accomplish with these steps?

ROBIN COOK: I think that the first thing to remember is that many countries in Europe have worked hard to keep far-right politics out government and to keep them on the margins, and that one of the important principles there is to make sure they don’t cross that credibility barrier by becoming members of the government. And that’s why so many countries in Europe are very disappointed and very angry that in Austria a far-right party has been allowed to cross that credibility barrier. Mr. Haider is not just a politician’s right-wing viewer, he is a man who has admired things that have been done by the Nazis in the past, he’s described the SS as men of decent character. We feel that in the modern Europe people like him should not be leading a party that’s allowed into government. Therefore, it’s not just a signal to people of Austria, it’s a very clear statement of the values of the European Union, of our commitment against xenophobia, against racism, for fairness, equality for the people inside our communities and no return to the past that’s scarred Europe’s history in the last century. I hope that the people of Austria, parliament of Austria, will be listening to what we have said and that we’ll find a way forward.

MARGARET WARNER: But is the only way forward or out of this isolation to kick Haider’s party out of the government? Is that what you’re looking for?

ROBIN COOK: Well, that would certainly be a very important step forward to help us to resolve this issue. Remember, 73% of those who voted in the elections did not vote for Haider’s party. And it should not be impossible to find a way of forming a government that represents those 73%. The new government has issued a very fine declaration of commitment to human rights, it reads very well, it’s excellent text. It of course represents everything that Mr. Haider has been rejecting throughout his political career. It will be very interesting to see if he abides within it over the months ahead, and we’ll be watching very closely and judging the government by the standards itself for itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, however, 27% of Austrians did vote for this party. Now, what do you say to Austrians who say this was a free and fair election, we are a democracy? Who or what is the EU to try to impose its views on our government, on our democratic process?

ROBIN COOK: Sure 27% did vote for Mr. Haider. Nobody is arguing that they have a right to be represented in parliament, but that does not mean to say that that parliament should then choose to put them into government. All over Europe we’re accustomed to building coalitions. What we’re saying is that process of putting together the government should not have conferred the credibility on those very unattractive views harking back to the past by bringing them into government. You remember that the whole basis of the European Union based on the lessons of the Second War is that we do have a commitment to tolerance, we do have a commitment to working together as nations – that they are interdependent. What Mr. Haider stands for strikes at that fundamental basis of the European Union. So this is not just an argument about a political program, this is a clash of two value systems, and it’s difficult to see how they can co-exist. I’m quite clear it’s Mr. Haider’s values that must not triumph.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there a danger though of generating a backlash against the EU and actually strengthening either Mr. Haider in Austria or other nationalists parties in Europe who do resent the European Union already?

ROBIN COOK: No, I don’t think that there’s any evidence of any backlash of the countries of Europe in support for nationalist parties. Indeed, the reason why the 14 other nations have taken this strong stand is to give a very clear message that we do not see a place for these kinds of obnoxious, dangerous, racist views in our government. It’s also very important to send that signal to the many countries that are applying to join the European Union, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe. Indeed, I was with one of them earlier this week, and their leader did say that it’s very important that this signal is sent to our country, because we do have people in our country who would argue for authoritarian right-wing racist views. It’s important that our people should hear that those views would not enable us to join the European Union.

MARGARET WARNER: And just briefly, if in this country a neo-Nazi were elect to Congress, he would be allowed to take his seat, and people would just hope and expect that essentially he’d hang himself. But there would be trust in the sort of democratic process that it would all sift itself out. Why not take that approach?

ROBIN COOK: Well, think we have been taking that approach in Austria for the past 15 years, which Mr. Haider has been active and as a party that’s been in the parliament. And throughout those 15 years he’s been kept out of office and he has been kept in that position of neglect. The reason that we are in this current situation is because that right-winger, it’s not just a normal right-winger, he has those Nazi sympathies and a background from those who were involved in the events of the Second World War, is he has now actually crossed out of just being in the parliament to be the leader of a party that is half the seats in the government. That’s quite a different issue. And that cannot be ignored. I do think if Europe was doing nothing and saying nothing, a lot of people here in America would be saying why is Europe not taking a firm line?

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Thanks for being with us.

ROBIN COOK: Thank you.