LONDON — Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to boycott the EU-African Summit held recently in Lisbon won general approval in Britain. He did not attend because Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, was going to be at the meeting.

Mugabe has devastated the economy of a potentially rich country, lining his own pockets and those of his henchmen. Rampant inflation has destroyed the livelihood of a large part of the population struggling to survive. He has flouted human rights, and his opponents have been imprisoned and beaten up.

The European Union has condemned his regime and applied weak sanctions including travel bans, but the African States let it be known that if Mugabe was denied entry to Portugal for the conference, other African leaders would not attend. The Portuguese, who hold the EU presidency through yearend, regarded the conference as a prestige achievement, so they gave in to African blackmail and the conference went ahead.

Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir, the general president of Sudan, attended with other African leaders, some of whom have dubious democratic credentials as “leaders” of countries where corruption and human rights abuses are endemic.

The Islamist regime in Sudan is particularly brutal and corrupt. It has fought with non-Islamic forces in the south seeking independence from Khartoum’s tyranny. The regime must also accept responsibility for the massacres of up to 300,000 people in Darfur, western Sudan.

Sudan’s “Islamism” was responsible for a recent incident in which a middle-aged British woman who had volunteered to teach kindergarten in the capital was hauled before a court and sentenced to 15 days imprisonment for blasphemy because she had let the children she was teaching call a teddy bear Muhammad. She was released only after two Muslim members of the British House of Lords flew to Khartoum and obtained an audience with the president. The incident has done nothing but harm the image of Islam and would be comic if it wasn’t so hurtful to the innocent woman, her relatives and friends.

At the EU-African summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did her best to impress on Mugabe the damage he is doing to his country and to criticize his human rights record. Sadly none of the African leaders, such as Theodore Mbeki, the president of South Africa, are prepared to put any real pressure on Mugabe. They seem to think that if they did so, it would indicate that they were condoning the colonialism of old.

Majority opinion in Britain believes the EU should have canceled the summit rather than succumb to African blackmail. The communique from the conference contained the usual platitudes; it is hard to see how it furthered political, economic or trade relations. Nor will it do anything significant to help development and eradicate poverty, disease and hunger from Africa.

Elsewhere, French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not take his human rights minister with him on a recent visit to Beijing presumably because he did not wish to spoil the atmosphere and thus reduce the chances of lucrative contracts for French industry.

Paris also just had a state visit from Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, who insisted on having a Bedouin tent erected on the grounds of the palace where he was staying. He behaved in typically boorish fashion, swaggering around Paris and criticizing the way the French treated their women! The French were no doubt relieved when this guest “from hell” left after signing contracts for expensive arms supplies and aircraft.

Almost all governments put trade and economic considerations before the principles of human rights and democratic freedoms. The U.S. government does this without admitting to hypocrisy in its dealings with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. So too does the British government, which invited the king of Saudi Arabia on a state visit recently. At least the Saudi king behaved at Buckingham Palace with better manners than the Libyan leader did in Paris, even if his vast entourage caused trouble for all those involved.

The British government has halted an investigation into allegations of corrupt practices involving Saudi Arabia and BAE, the British arms supplier. Although this decision was ostensibly taken after the Saudis said the investigation jeopardized intelligence cooperation, the general belief is that the investigation would have revealed serious corruption among Saudi leaders.

The Japanese government does not behave any differently. The Japanese prime minister recently refused to meet with the Dalai Lama because Beijing disapproves of the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. And despite the murder of a Japanese journalist in Yangon, the Japanese government still seems to pussyfoot around the question of sanctions against the military regime in Burma.

With North Korea, the issue of Japanese abductees rightly continues to rankle the Japanese public. Accordingly, the Japanese government is said to be concerned by the apparent willingness of U.S. President George W. Bush to exchange correspondence with the “Dear Leader” of North Korea, whose human rights record is among the worst in the world.

The hypocrisy of ministers is one of the reasons for their increasing loss of political credibility and growing cynicism among voters. As former U.S. President Bill Clinton said: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Principles sadly are often sacrificed for economic advantage.

Our leaders should, however, at least follow the old adage “if you must sup with the devil, do so with a long spoon.”

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.