Jeremy Browne sees scope for U.K., India to see world through similar eyes

While Britain is taking a strong leadership role in the world in arguing for Internet freedom, its position on the widely-debated issue is not an absolutist one, Jeremy Browne, UK Minister for Foreign affairs said on Tuesday.

Participating in an interactive session with business leaders under the auspices of the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI), Mr. Browne said while the UK quite emphatically stood for an open society and freedom of speech and expression, there were also areas where there could be competing freedoms such as one's right to privacy against the other's right to know.

While the assumption that the individual is sovereign and that the State is a servant of the people and not the other way around was a core belief of an open society, there was also the potential for the ability to communicate (on the Internet) to be used in malign ways such as paedophiles misusing social media to snare children, he said.

“There are parameters but I think when we're discussing them we start with the freedom of expression at the near end of the scale,” he said.

Mr. Browne, who felt that the Internet and social media were a great force for good, cited the Arab world where there were curbs on individual freedoms to argue that the most likely way that the people there would become free over time would be not through the intervention of the United Nations or the signing of treaties, but through millions of people using their shared knowledge at the grassroots level to bring about social change in a bottom-up rather than top-down movement.

Replying to a question on the UK's increasing friction with Iran, Mr. Browne said the UK had “very severe problems” with the Iranian regime for sponsoring terrorism and abusing human rights. And, although the UK had no problems with Iran producing nuclear power for civilian use, it could not risk a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, “which was already the most unstable part of the world.”

Stressing the need to build broad coalitions of support based on shared values in a changing world order, Mr. Browne noted that India was a strong ally in this regard, shared common ground with the UK on democracy, free speech, trade relations, wealth creation, cultural and sporting links and made it potentially possible for “Britain and India to see the world through similar eyes.”

According to the UK Minister, Britain's Foreign Office had clubbed India along with China and Brazil instead of viewing it merely in regional context and the UK diplomatic mission in India would shortly scale up its presence across more cities and with more staff.

Whether setting a target for doubling bilateral trade by 2015 or urging India to push for an open environment for trade and investment similar to how the UK had welcomed Indian giants into its automotive and steel, Mr. Browne refrained from limiting the UK-India relationship to a purely economic domain. In fact, Britain's forthright support for a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council stemmed from a wish to see that India was properly represented on the international stage, he said.

“Our two nations do not always agree on matters of foreign policy but we both place supreme importance on the architecture of global governance. If institutions like the UN are to retain their legitimacy, they must be representative of global distributions of power and influence,” Mr. Browne said.

Mike Nithavrianakis, British Deputy High Commissioner for Southern India, T. Shivaraman, MCCI vice-president and K. Saraswathi, MCCI secretary-general participated.

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