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No vote, please, we're British

THE Foreign Office is the self-proclaimed standard-bearer of Whitehall, the ministry that attracts the best and brightest, the institution that allows Britain to punch above its weight on the international stage.

And nowhere is this elite more elitist than among the Arabists, who for decades have dominated the top diplomatic ranks and prided themselves on their expertise in an important and unstable part of the world.

So when the UN Human Rights Council met yesterday to vote on the controversial Goldstone report into the Gaza conflict, Britain's position was regarded as crucial.

Would the British side with the US and five European countries to vote against a document regarded by the West as critical of Israel? Would it join Russia, China and most Arab and other countries and vote in favour of recommendations that could lead to war crimes charges? Or would it take the safe route and abstain along with 11 other countries willing to register their protest but unhappy with the wording of the text?

We will never know. Along with global heavyweights such as Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar and Angola -- most of whom had the excuse of not having any diplomats in Geneva -- the British delegation did nothing.

Like characters in an improbable episode of Yes Minister, David Miliband and the finest minds in the FO decided not to vote. No British opinion was registered on a matter of great consequence not only to Israel and the Palestinians -- the two sides involved in the conflict -- but to the future of peace efforts in the region.

Many arguments will no doubt emerge to justify the British indecision. There was not enough time to study the text, consult other countries or win concessions. In short, the British have pioneered a new form of diplomacy -- "the dog ate my homework".

Britain has a permanent seat at the UN Security Council because its opinions are supposed to matter. If it cannot even muster the nerve to vote at the UN Human Rights Council, what hope is there for decisiveness on tougher issues such as Afghanistan and Iran? The only consolation is that Britain was not the only major power to wimp out. France also slipped off for an early weekend.

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