Thursday, 1 February 2007

British government timorous in the face of death

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Labour government has no sense of principle or decency. Nevertheless, I am saddened to read that British diplomats have been ordered to torpedo plans in Europe to propose the abolition of the death penalty to the UN General Assembly.

That it would have been an example of gesture politics is without doubt. There is no likelihood that the General Assembly, where unanimity is required, would have passed such a motion. The death penalty remains popular in much of the globe; tyrannical regimes use it as the ultimate deterrent against dissent; and nations without a Christian heritage have entirely different underlying views of punishment, retribution and the sanctity of human life.

It is also true that the proposal has more to do with Romano Prodi’s efforts to shore up his fragile coalition than it does with evangelical zeal.

Yet neither of these are reasons not to promote our values abroad. While we may question the right of nations to dictate to one another by what standards they should live, spreading our beliefs by peaceful means is both a right and an inevitable consequence of interaction. There is an ocean of difference between the work of missionaries and that of conquistadors (to wit, the Atlantic!).

Slavery had a longer history in Africa and the Middle East than it did in Britain and America, but was largely stamped out when Britain and later America banned the practice (though even today there are thriving slave markets in Southern Sudan, among other places). And by-and-large, action on the international stage may be legitimised by international law or natural justice, but it is fuelled by the private interests of the actors: the efforts by 34 countries to liberate Kuwait in 1991 were no less justified because selfish interests motivated their involvement.

The case against the death penalty is strong, and we should consider it a duty to share that case with our neighbours. Admittedly, last month I sounded a note of caution around the time of the execution of Saddam Hussein. I argued that the moment when a nation emerging from tyranny executes its tormentor is not the best time to lecture them on the limitations of the state – the state did not appear very limited under Hussein! As Shami Chakrabarti has commented (in a different context), just because one has a right to say something does not mean one always should.

It does not follow, however, that because there are times when one would be wise not to hector a particular nation, one should hesitate to make a general point to a wide audience. It will always be a difficult moment for somebody. There is in fact a rather pusillanimous air to the government’s reluctance to bring this proposal to the General Assembly on the grounds that it might create difficulties for the Americans.

Britain should welcome an opportunity to advocate, along with our European partners, a noble cause. Sadly, the present government is suffering from a peculiar form of self-censorship: afraid to upset the American administration despite there being no indication from America that they do, in fact, object.

Anyway, the government should not be shaping its foreign policy purely on the basis of American opinion. As I have argued before, a true friend is one that tells you when you are wrong; we will not be doing either the United States or any other country a favour if we keep our counsel to ourselves because of concern that the truth might hurt. This takes courage, however, as well as honesty. Neither of these are virtues associated with the Labour government.


Kit said...

I thought a majority of people in the this country were in favour of capital punishment?

Tom Papworth said...

I'm not sure whether that has been tested recently.

That being said, the fact that a majority support something does not automatically justify it. It is possible for a democracy to be illiberal.