MANY of you reading this have probably been watching the extraordinary scenes from Belarus recently. The courage of those ordinary Belarusian citizens in facing down the autocratic regime of President Alexander Lukashenko has become inspirational, and a reminder to many across the world that even when confronted by brutality and intimidation the thirst for a free and just society is unquenchable.

How many of you reading this though, I wonder, realise that the UK stands accused of “strengthening” Lukashenko’s dictatorship by providing training to troops and commanders in Belarus’s armed forces?

Yes, those very same black clad and helmeted soldiers with their assault rifles deployed on the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk as part of the crackdown against protesters, have worked collaboratively with Britain’s own military to improve their “skillset”. All this too happened with barely a peep of disapproval – with a few admirable exceptions – from the UK’s elected politicians.

Advanced training of Belarusian officers and joint military exercises, the images and footage of which have helped give legitimacy to Lukashenko’s rule when shown back home on state media, would not have been possible without Britain’s willing collaboration.

If this comes as a surprise to anyone, let me just point you in the direction of the findings of a parliamentary question this week that the UK is collaborating and helping train the militaries of no fewer than a dozen countries on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) own human rights watch list.

Don’t misunderstand me here, I’ve spent enough time in and around various troubled parts of the world to understand that a case can be made for providing training to help nations deal with existential threats from malign forces like Islamist inspired terrorism. The West African countries of Mali, Chad, Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso are all obvious points in case.

In some of these nations, Britain alongside France and other countries has significantly stepped up its military support to help combat what is arguably the world’s fastest growing Islamist-led insurgency with the potential to spawn a new generation of transnational jihadist terrorists.

But even when such strategies are adopted for the best of reasons things can go wrong. Just this week the European Union (EU) announced it was temporarily halting its two training missions in Mali after the army seized power in a coup. “We don’t train the armies to be putschists,” insisted Josep Borrell, EU minister for Foreign Affairs, adding that the most prominent coup leader was trained in Russia, while others were trained in the UK and the US.

Others, however, disagreed with Borrell, saying that some of the leading figures in the coup had been trained in Germany and France. Whatever the veracity of these opposing claims, one lesson is patently clear, you cannot be too careful when it comes to offering military support and training, not least when a country or regime has form on repression and human rights abuses.

As the finding of the UK parliamentary question revealed, Britain from 2018-2020 provided military training for 17 countries out of 30 identified as “human rights priority countries” by the FCO.

In Bahrain, where the government cracked down on peaceful opposition protests in 2018 effectively crushing all dissent, this took the shape of Britain providing sniper commander courses to soldiers there.

Then there is the training the UK provides for Saudi Arabian forces, linked to the use of UK-made fighter jets being used in the war in Yemen, helping create the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Among other regimes receiving UK training are Egypt, China, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Colombia, Somalia and Turkmenistan in everything from amphibious to electronic warfare.

In Belarus’s case Britain helped with an advanced command and staff course, no doubt ensuing that Lukashenko’s cadres were more than trained to carry out their duties.

As Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) rightly pointed out this week, the hypocrisy of the UK position is obvious. Here is a country that for too long now has talked about the importance of human rights and democracy while at the same time happy to arm, support and effectively strengthen authoritarian regimes across the world.

There are those of course who will say that it has always been thus and that if Britain didn’t do it and make a buck from it someone else would. Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but either way it doesn’t make it right.

Here in Scotland much is often said about how things might be done differently were we an independent nation with the power to shape all of our own policies.

While foreign policy and defence remain reserved issues, there is little we can do beyond express our collective disdain and opposition to the crass hypocrisy that currently prevails with regard to the UK Government’s often cosy military relationship with oppressive regimes. With independence on the other hand, there would be the chance to press the reset button.

Sceptics will always be ten-a-penny arguing that any envisaging of a new moral approach to foreign affairs is nothing more than wishful thinking. It was those same sceptics who mocked derisively when the then Labour shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook made that famous speech in 1997 off his own back.

Cook was right when he said that we should not accept that “political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business”.

He was right, too, that such a foreign policy must have an ethical dimension that supports the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.

It is to Cook’s eternal credit that he stuck to advocating such an approach and resigned from the cabinet in 2003 when his government and party rode roughshod over any notion of an ethical foreign policy by going to war in Iraq.

But an independent Scotland can still learn from the example he set. We can replace aggression with soft power. Instead of appeasing dictators we can harness diplomacy and instead of military intervention we can offer the humanitarian kind.

For those of us in Scotland who sometimes perhaps struggle to understand what is meant by adopting an ethical foreign policy approach these are just a few examples. Talking about human rights while providing the military support that enables repressive regimes to function should not be our way. We can do things differently and better.

From next week, David Pratt’s column will appear on Thursdays