Why boycott Zimbabwe, but not China?

Three countries are currently targets for western opprobrium: Iraq, North Korea and Zimbabwe. It is no doubt a tiresome, left cliche that the present state of all three owes much to foreign and particularly western imperialism; but cliches often happen to be true. Iraq is an invention of British colonialism, and British forces were the first to use chemical weapons there. We are now learning of the extent to which Saddam, in the 1980s, was armed with biological weapons by US Republican administrations, with Donald Rumsfeld, now the outstandingly hawkish defence secretary, playing a significant role. North Korea was the first victim of the US policy of bombing recalcitrant Asians back to the Stone Age.

Though none of this is necessarily a guide to present action - those who supported the Russian revolution were not required to go soft on Stalin's terror, nor were those who supported bombing Cambodia required to sustain Pol Pot - it should inhibit, just a trifle, those who try to mount moral high horses. It should also encourage the rest of us to demand a degree of consistency in how our leaders apply the principles they espouse, and to scrutinise carefully statements that "there is no alternative" to this or that stand.

Discuss with reference to Zimbabwe. This was a country left with a grossly unequal distribution of land, wealth, education and skills between the races after a century or so of white, mainly British, rule. Robert Mugabe's monstrous regime imprisons and murders its critics, rigs elections, attempts land redistribution in a foolish and lawless fashion and, during a famine, denies food to areas that support its opponents. But is it really significantly worse than, say, China, which is due to host the 2008 Olympic Games, or Syria, whose leader was feted in Downing Street a few weeks ago? What explains the particular media and political outrage against Zimbabwe, and the demand that English cricketers boycott a match there (which, unusually, they are likely to win) during the forthcoming World Cup? It is hard to escape the conclusion that it's the old "kith and kin" sentiment: though the vast majority of Mr Mugabe's victims are black, whites - mainly rich farmers - have also suffered. The comparisons with apartheid South Africa are seductive, but wrong. The apartheid regime was uniquely repugnant because its oppressions were based on racial grounds alone, and a sporting boycott was justified because sports were racially segregated and national teams always closed to blacks. For Daily Telegraph columnists - most of whom defended rugby and cricket tours to South Africa to the bitter end - now to support a boycott of Zimbabwe is laughable.

The most important argument against the boycott is that, if it were to go ahead and if it were joined, as seems likely, by Australia and Holland, who are also due to play in Zimbabwe, international cricket would be split (admittedly, not for the first time) along racial lines. This would be a bad outcome at a time when western, white-controlled nations are regarded with more suspicion than ever. It would also play into Mr Mugabe's hands because he could brand international opposition to him as racist, while enjoying the spotlight when India and Pakistan play there. Instead of wringing their hands, therefore, ministers should propose something practical to the political nincompoops who run English cricket: that they return to the International Cricket Council and argue for conditions that could reasonably apply to international sporting events of any kind held anywhere (including those cricket World Cup matches scheduled for South Africa). These are that politicians should keep away (no lording it over opening ceremonies; no presentations to visiting teams) and journalists be unrestricted in their movements. Mr Mugabe could not then use World Cup matches for his personal glorification or to give an illusion of normality in his country. If he refused the conditions, the onus of calling off the matches would be on him, as it was on South Africa's John Vorster when he refused admission to an England cricket team that included Basil D'Oliveira, a Cape Coloured, in 1968.

The council may not agree to imposing these conditions (in which case the English team could still go to Harare but refuse to shake hands with Mugabe or any member of his odious government). But British politicians would at least have a formula for tackling the human rights dilemmas that often attend sporting events, and which would be applicable to Beijing in 2008 or, indeed, to a possible London Olympics in 2012. It would be a great improvement on the present inconsistencies in their approach to tyranny - which, to most of the world, smack of hypocrisy and ex-colonial superiority.