The west muscles in

The coverage of the US journalists released from North Korea ignored the fact they knowingly broke t

Universal ululations greeted the arrival back on US soil of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were freed from jail in North Korea after the intervention of Bill Clinton. Slightly more muted were the celebrations for Samantha Orobator, the British woman who became pregnant in a Laotian jail and is being allowed to serve the rest of her sentence in the UK, although the Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant did remark that it was "excellent news".

While incarceration may have been deeply unpleasant for all three women, one fact was barely mentioned: without doubt, they knowingly broke the laws of the countries they visited. Lee and Ling, journalists for Al Gore's Current TV, illegally crossed the border from China into North Korea, aware of the dangers of doing so. Orobator was caught with 680g of heroin at Vientiane Airport. But the coverage of these cases, as so often when westerners are arrested in developing countries, focused almost exclusively on outrage at the conditions in which they were held and the sentences they faced. The garb of human rights hid a less pleasant, unspoken assumption: your laws shouldn't apply to us.

North Korea and Laos may be unsavoury regimes whose judicial systems we cannot trust, but these were not instances of unprovoked abuse by security services. Few will dispute that a state has the right to police its borders or impose penalties for drug trafficking.

The real point is that many westerners seem to think, 50 years after losing their empires, that they should still have carte blanche to wander the earth held to a different set of rules from those of the populations they deign to visit. Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made this point well in his memoir From Third World to First. "In 1993, an 18-year-old schoolboy, Michael Fay, and his friends went on a spree, vandalising road and traffic signs and spray-painting more than 20 cars. When charged in court, he pleaded guilty and his lawyer made a plea for leniency. The judge ordered six strokes of the cane and four months in jail."

Such sentences are common in the region; we hear nothing about them. But "the American media went berserk at the prospect of an American boy being caned on his buttocks by cruel Asians in Singapore", said Lee. Suggestions were made that the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation be moved from Singapore over this "barbarity".

“Barbaric" was the very word bandied about by the Australian premier Bob Hawke when Malaysia hanged two of his countrymen for drug trafficking in 1986. But the more telling view was that of one of the defendants, Kevin Barlow. "Do you reckon they'll hang us?" asked his co-defendant, Brian Chambers. No, replied Barlow. "The Malaysians won't hang white guys."

Exchange the word "white" for "western" and you have, it seems to me, the real truth behind the protestations whenever one of our nationals gets banged up abroad for doing something they know they shouldn't have done. It's OK for them, but not for us.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War