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Friday, 14 July 2017

Values? What values?

When Donald Trump addressed the people of Poland last week, just before he headed off to Germany for the G20 summit, he spoke in glowing terms of what he called Western civilisation.

'We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression,' he said. 'We value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.'

I wonder if the Chinese pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo heard those words. We'll never know, because now Liu is dead, the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and died in 1938.

Western civilisation? The right to free speech? The dignity of every human life? Rarely have those words sounded as hollow as they do today, less than a week after China's president, Xi Jinping, was fêted by his G20 fellow-leaders.

(It's not entirely fair, incidentally, to single out President Trump for criticism. Liu's American lawyer Jared Genser wrote in the Washington Post two weeks ago that Barack Obama 'led the West in playing down concerns with China on human rights and was conspicuous by his unwillingness to help Liu, his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate.')

But let's not confine ourselves to the abysmal record of China. Also at the G20 summit, looking like the cat who got the cream as he wrapped Mr Trump round his little finger (if you'll excuse the mixed imagery), was President Vladimir Putin, a man whose political enemies have a remarkable habit of ending up dead.

Enemies like Boris Nemtsov, whom I met in Moscow in December 2013, as he campaigned to reveal the appalling corruption in which the Sochi Winter Olympics were mired. He was shot dead on a Moscow street just over a year later. Or like the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006. Or the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in 2009.

(We'll return to the Magnitsky case another day, as it's part of the increasingly surreal Donald Trump Jr emails saga. The Russian lawyer whom the young Trump met in the hope that she was about to hand over some dirt on Hillary Clinton was best known as a lobbyist against the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials suspected of involvement in Magnitsky's death.)

Standing right next to Mr Putin in the G20 family photo was President Erdoğan of Turkey, who just a year ago survived what may or may not have been an attempted coup against him and who then embarked on a crackdown in which an estimated 50,000 people have been arrested and another 150,000 have been either sacked or suspended from their jobs.

The inescapable conclusion? That Western civilisation defends the right to free speech except where it doesn't.

Certainly not in Egypt, for example, where a military coup that put an end to an inglorious -- but democratically-elected -- Muslim Brotherhood administration was greeted with a deafening sigh of relief from Western capitals.

And definitely not in Saudi Arabia, where a ruling royal family riddled with corruption has been fawned over shamelessly for decades in return for billions of dollars-worth of arms contracts. (Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who had the temerity to write in favour of such outlandish ideas as secularism and democracy.)

I wasn't born yesterday. I know that strategic and commercial considerations will always take precedence over such wishy-washy things as 'values'. What sticks in my throat is the cant, the absurd pretence that somehow the West stands for all that is best about the human condition.

Donald Trump, as it happens, pretends much less often than most of his fellow Western leaders. His speech in Warsaw was a rare exception, but not to be taken seriously, given that no one was fooled for one moment into believing that he had written it, that he meant it, or even that he understood it.

At least Trump is open in his admiration of despots: Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, Sisi of Egypt and even the truly appalling Duterte of the Philippines. I suspect he would love to be able to behave as they do: locking up his opponents, ruling by decree, and governing by fear.

To his credit, the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson did issue a statement paying tribute to Liu Xiaobo after his death on Thursday and calling for the release from house arrest of his wife, Liu Xia. It was the very least he could have done.


President Trump, tone deaf as ever, chose instead to praise President Xi Jinping as a 'very talented man, a good man, a terrific guy and a very special person'.  A few hours later, the White House had to issue a follow-up statement: the president had been 'deeply saddened' to learn of Liu's death and offered his condolences. So that's all right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've not heard too much free speech coming out of Guantanamo recently, Robin... Nor heard much about it, come to that.