International sanctions - Which of us can throw first stone?

Every time a minister visits a country that offends Western sensibilities, they are encouraged to challenge their hosts and suggest that they mend their ways.

There is an absurdity about this set piece, an air of habitual and cynical playing to the home gallery while knowing that the gesture is essentially meaningless — and sometimes even counterproductive.

That is especially so when the representatives of a small country like Ireland — population 4.6m — visit a place like China — population 1.351bn — and suggest they need to be more like us, more tolerant and inclusive.

The absurdity is compounded by the fact that these admonishments reflect political alliances rather than any moral truth. When was the last time an Irish emissary was encouraged to challenge America — population 314m — about Guantanamo Bay, a detention camp as inhuman as the KGB’s Lubyanka ever was? Or on, say, America’s policy of execution by drones? Some targets may well be odious and dangerous zealots from the Middle Ages but drones can be as indiscriminate and cause as much collateral damage as any IRA car bomb.

The fact that Ireland, as Louise O’Keeffe will confirm, is the only Western European country not to have ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on violence against women, weakens our hand in these parlour-game crusades. So too does the fact that very many changes in social legislation became law because of 11th-hour interventions by European courts.

Next Friday, the 22nd Winter Olympics will open in Sochi, Russia, and a litany of Western leaders and countries have declined to send official delegations, though this distaste has not provoked a sports boycott.

It’s been 30 years since an Olympic boycott of importance. The Soviet Union and its subject states refused to attend the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. This was a tit-for-tat response to America’s boycott of Moscow in 1980 — a protest made because the USSR invaded Afghanistan. It is ironic that as President Putin opens the Sochi olympiad, Mr Obama is struggling to negotiate a withdrawal, after 13 years of bitter, bloody conflict of American troops from Afghanistan.

The Sochi games are under a cloud because of suggestions of, well, olympian corruption. Initial plans imagined a budget of €9bn but that has more than quadrupled to €39bn, surpassing the record €33bn for the Beijing games. It has been claimed that the main beneficiaries of this largesse are members of Mr Putin’s inner circle or those at least very supportive of his regime. All of this continues as something approaching a revolution takes place in the Ukraine where a great proportion of the population wants to break from Russia. That their ambitions are crushed so violently suggests that little enough has changed in how superpowers deal with determined opposition.

All of this continues while Mr Putin promotes hateful homophobia that might be expected from Middle Ages zealots rather than from a modern world leader.

Our criticism of Russia’s homophobia must be tempered by the fact that we have reopened an embassy at the Vatican, the source of so many of the statements that give comfort to those unwilling to recognise that those who are not heterosexual are equal citizens in a complex and diverse world. How difficult it is to achieve moral authority and how much more difficult it is to sustain it.

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