In August 2002 Craig Murray set off to Uzbekistan as HM Ambassador. For those of us a bit vague about the aftermath of the USSR, it’s bordered by Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan, and what’s left of the Aral Sea after the appalling ecological impact of its massive cotton industry. Alongside cotton it produces natural gas, vast amounts of minerals, and tobacco. It’s a country full of resounding place names, among them what were once called the Oxus and the Jaxartes rivers and the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand.
Murray had not been an ambassador before but he had been a diplomat for some 20 years, including a spell as head of the economics section of the British Embassy in Warsaw and most recently as Deputy High Commissioner of Ghana. He did not come from the typical FCO background: a Scot, he went to a state school and Dundee University. His staff in Tashkent was tiny: few other western nations even had an embassy there at the time.
It will be no surprise to anyone who reads Murray’s site that his book is in part a sustained attack on UK foreign policy over the last few years. Murray soon began to come to the conclusion that Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan were a brutal band of corrupt thugs, running a country where show-trials relying on ‘evidence’ obtained by torture were routine. The US and UK were backing the regime, in part as an element of the ‘War on Terror’, and pouring money into it, because it was opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, and because Uzbekistan is in a useful position for Rumsfeld’s ‘lily pad’ strategy (lots of permanent major US bases scattered over the middle east for rapid reaction), and also happen to be sitting on a lot of valuable natural resources and potential pipeline routes etc. He also argues that our Governments are, or at least were, labouring under a fundamental misapprehension: that Karimov’s regime is part and parcel with other Soviet successor regimes in eastern Europe: Walesa, Havel, and the like. It isn’t: Karimov and his ilk are the old local Communist leaders under new colours. These are men who were not at all impressed with Gorbachev.
Murray decided that one of the themes of his embassy would be standing up on human rights: in later correspondence with the FCO he was to write:
‘I think that outrage is absolutely the correct emotion at learning that someone has been tortured to death with boiling water. If your reaction at seeing photos of this is not to be outraged but to wonder precisely which UN Convention contains provision against torture by boiling water, then I am sorry. I see the head of ODIHR has called it in public ‘horrid’. I presume you think he is being a bit strong. [‘] PS I don’t know if you have noticed but I have a slight speech defect. I really can’t call anything ‘howwid’.’
Alongside this Murray was also to fight hard for British businesses opening in the country and facing enormous difficulties from the regime. And he refused to lie down and take the regime’s bullying and hectoring: early on he came to the conclusion that the economic and other statistics emanating from the Uzbek Government were, frankly, a pack of lies, and he said so: to them, to the FCO, and to IMF meetings. Vast amounts of money have been sunk into Uzbekistan, in particular via the EBRD, on very shaky data and for projects that often seem to go nowhere. In October 2002, at a speech for the opening of Freedom House, a US NGO, Murray, following a speech by the US Ambassador praising Uzbekistan for its progress, gave an uncompromising speech, saying ‘Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy.’
Obtaining clearance for that speech, though it was eventually forthcoming, had been something of a battle: it appears to have been an early defining moment in the split between Murray and his immediate superiors in London that forms the main narrative of the book. They wanted him to play nicely with the Uzbeks: he argued that standing up to them was a far more effective tactic and one that received results.
In time Murray became aware that information obtained by torture by the SNB (the renamed local KGB) passed to the CIA and under the intelligence-sharing agreements, from them to MI6. He was unimpressed: not only did he consider it immoral to use ‘evidence’ obtained in this way, he also thought it utterly useless and counterproductive. Frankly I find it difficult to see how anyone could seriously disagree with either point, but the FCO did, and in time Murray was to be presented with a legal opinion that this was not in breach of international law.
Murray wasn’t the only one in the Diplomatic Corps to have doubts about the direction of policy: he received correspondence in support from some of his peers and in 2004 fifty former diplomats were to sign an open letter in The Times criticising the UK’s middle east policy (the response of the Government was to dismiss them as ‘the Camel Corps’). By contrast Murray’s superiors in the Eastern Department appear to have been enthusiastically on-board with the Government’s views. In addition, in that part of the FCO, little seems to have changed in attitudes in a century. Murray is convinced that his atypical background, and his ‘larger than life’ persona played badly against him.
He wasn’t helped by his own failings, to which he admits: fairly heavy drinking, visits to dodgy clubs, and womanising: part of the story he tells is of the failure of his marriage when he fell in love with an Uzbek woman he met in a club he frequented. It’s worth noting that he doesn’t seek to cast any of the blame for the resulting collapse of his marriage on his ex-wife, to whom he says he owes a great deal. None of this appears to have had any impact on his ability to do his job, nonetheless when the time came it provided the FCO with helpful ammunition.
Over the following two years, as the war in Iraq progressed, relations with his superiors in Whitehall broke down. In the Government only Clare Short, who visited Tashkent in 2003 for the EBRD and slammed the Uzbek Government at a speech in Karimov’s presence, seems to have seen Murray’s points: since she resigned the day after her return from that trip this was less help than it might have been.
In the summer of 2003 18 disciplinary allegations were made against Murray, ranging from drunkenness on duty to taking the flag car out late (two others were later added, including the rather Kafkaesque offence of talking to his staff about the allegations). His resignation was requested. The reaction from the British business community in Uzbekistan was immense: he calculates Jack Straw received some 87 pages of letters in his support. Even the Lord Mayor of the City of London appears to have made sure his support for Murray was known. In the end the only allegation of which Murray appears to have been found guilty is that of talking to his staff about the other allegations.In the course of all this he became ill and was flown back to London twice: first with severe depression and then with a serious pulmonary embolism. Yet in the end, despite the FCO’s attempts to use this to prevent his return, he went back in January 2004.
Why had Murray been put through all this? He refers in the book to being told by Nick Cohen that Cohen had been told by a senior Government minister the instruction came direct from No 10. Murray’s outspokenness was embarrassing to Government policy. Beyond that, Murray believes the pressure came directly from Washington and the US Ambassador in Tashkent, from where it seems many of the allegations against him emanated. In February 2004 Donald Rumsfeld visited Tashkent and spoke of Uzbekistan as ‘a key member of the coalition’s Global War On Terror’.
In October 2004 Murray’s telegram on the use of evidence obtained by torture, including the phrase for which he has become best-known ‘we are selling our souls for dross’, was leaked to the FT. Murray denies being the leak, but the FCO found against him, and finally sacked him.
The book is a fascinating read, if occasionally slightly clunky: not only for the story and the light it sheds on the UK and US foreign policy of the last few years, but as an insight into the workings of the murkier parts of Whitehall. It’s also in parts funny. But there’s a certain bitter irony in that at the same time as we were gearing up to remove Saddam Hussein from power the foolishness of supporting a brutal totalitarian thug because he seemed better than the alternatives passed the Government and the FCO by. It’s striking too that Murray criticises New Labour for its lack of interest in detail, or in anything that doesn’t amount to a positive headline: the superficial ‘big picture’. That’s a criticism that has been made again and again, across the range of Government policy.
The coda to the story deserves attention too. Various documents were obtained by Murray under the Freedom of Information Act, and he hoped to include them in the book. But the Government claimed Crown copyright to stop him, and not only did the publisher decline to include them, Murray was eventually forced by the threat of legal action to remove them from his own website. Somewhat pointlessly, as by then they had been mirrored all over the internet and are no more than a basic google away. Since the Government had no intention of commercial exploitation of the material, using Crown Copyright to subvert freedom of information seems highly dubious at best. The IP blogger-barrister known as Geeklawyer described the spirit behind this as ‘that of all power: the acquisition, retention and egregious abuse of it because one can. I’ve never seen a policy justification for the special status of Crown copyright and this case illustrates its pernicious use in saving the Government from embarrassing questions and comment.’
I find Murray all too credible. And I support strongly his arguments. Clearly he wasn’t a very diplomatic person, in the general sense, but should he have been? But I do have one serious question: was it right for Murray to stay in his position when he was so clearly unable to support UK Government policy? In the end, he was a civil servant, and his duty was to represent the Government: clearly he had difficulty in doing that. I don’t feel certain about the answer to that: an Ambassador does have a wider responsibility than simply being a mouthpiece for the Government, nor can he be expected to agree with every part of Government policy. But there must be a line somewhere, and I find myself wondering if he wouldn’t have been better to resign far earlier in order to be free to make his arguments.