DHR, together with a many human rights groups mourns the sudden death of Robin Cook in Scotland this August. He will be remembered by us as the human rights foreign secretary.
Not surprisingly for someone who was born at the same time as the United Nations, Robin Cook recognised that all nations belong to the same international community, and should abide by the rules set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Addressing an audience of NGOs and other human rights experts in the Foreign Offices Locarno Room on July 17, 1997, Cook committed himself to a human rights based foreign policy. This was a brave step. The last major power to do this was the USA at the time of the Carter regime, and that in many people‘s eyes ended in tears.
Robin Cook hired staff from human rights groups and seconded Foreign Office staff to NGOs, as well as arranging for ambassadors and ministers to receive country briefings where appropriate. His Department produced an annual report on its human rights work and launched a global campaign against torture and the death penalty.
It was for his support for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Robin Cook is best remembered by Doctors for Human Rights. Advocates engaged in the campaign throughout the 1990s observed a one hundred and eighty degree turn on the part of the Foreign Office by the end of 1997. It is well known that the UK came under enormous pressure during the 1998 negotiations in Rome on a number of points that might have reduced the chances of obtaining an effective and independent court. But the Foreign Office led team stuck firmly to its new mandate even though this necessitated a flight to London to brief Whitehall on what was actually going on in Rome.
Determined to bringing torturers, genocidaires and other perpetrators of international crimes to justice, Robin Cook provided robust support for international judicial institutions. This did not only take the form of building extra chambers for UN tribunals, he worked to ensure that suspects in the former Yugoslavia were arrested, supporting an SAS arrest in 1997. Cook was equally concerned with prevention, and actively sustained the concept of the responsibility to protect by promoting military intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
It is too soon in the immediate aftermath of Robin Cook‘s death to try to evaluate his contribution to human rights, huge though it clearly was. One lesson can be learned though. In his Locarno Room speech, Cook made it clear that he was under no illusions that a perfect world could be achieved. But that he did believe that we could make a difference. He ended his speech with an invitation to the nation to join in the difficult but necessary task of defending human rights wherever they are under threat. Now is the time for each one of us to help pick up the mantle