Tuesday 11 July 2006

Double standards

I hate pinching other columnists’ catchphrases, but you really couldn’t make it up. Here we are, with an exploding jail population (not literally, unfortunately) and a proven inability to keep dangerous foreigners under lock and key. So what does the Government do? Only volunteers to provide a cell for Charles Taylor, sometime President of Liberia, if he should be convicted of war crimes at his forthcoming trial.

You might like to go onto the Internet and look at a picture of this character, as there is every chance that he could be stacking shelves or flipping burgers near you sometime soon, after one of those ‘I can’t think how it happened’ incidents for which the Home Office is renowned.

Even if he can’t work up the energy to abscond from his open prison, and is released through due process at the end of his sentence, we can be sure of one thing. If Mr Taylor ever gets to Britain, he won’t be leaving it in a hurry. We certainly won’t be sending him back to Liberia. It would be far too dangerous for him.

Some of us have difficulty with the whole concept of war crimes. Those of which Mr Taylor is accused arise from his support for a rebel group in Sierra Leone, which committed some foul atrocities during the 1990s. Though the key which makes these into war crimes is, of course, the fact that the rebels lost. The world doesn’t prosecute a lot of war criminals from the winning side.

There is little doubt that those who unleashed the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima could have been charged with war crimes if the Allies had lost the Second World War. I say ‘could’ rather than ‘would’, as I don’t imagine for a moment that the victorious Axis powers would have thought it worth while setting up any such tribunal. Their approach would surely have been the more robust one favoured by Churchill: that any survivors of the enemy leadership should simply be shot out of hand.

Meanwhile, as ex-President Taylor is on his way into Britain (should he be found guilty in The Hague), three former NatWest bankers are on their way out. Unless sanity has prevailed by the time you read this, these gents are probably heading for two years in a Texas penitentiary, while they await trial for allegedly defrauding their former employer. They’re UK citizens, accused of a crime against a UK company, committed in the UK. And NatWest, the British police and the Serious Fraud Office have shown no interest in taking action against them. But since the NatWest asset they sold at an allegedly cut price went to that celebrated US corporate failure, Enron, the Americans are very interested indeed.

It’s all the more iniquitous that they can be whisked off like this because our new extradition treaty with the US, designed to combat terrorism, only works in one direction. The US Senate has declined to ratify it, because many Americans make a distinction between Muslims who blow up US citizens (evil criminals who must be eliminated) and Irish people who blow up British citizens (valiant freedom fighters who deserve to be feted at the White House and sent generous financial assistance). And it would clearly never do if some of the latter ended up being extradited here to face our notoriously biased courts.

Some of us are old-fashioned enough to believe that the first duty of any government is to protect its own citizens. If they have committed a crime here, you put them on trial here. You don’t send them off to any foreign jurisdiction that decides to take an interest. But then, perhaps that’s just too simplistic. After all, we can hardly prosecute them when we all know that there isn’t any room to spare in our prisons if they should turn out to be guilty. Particularly when we have to keep space free for assorted national leaders from around the world who end up on the losing side.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

No comments: