Ukrainian ex-prime minister Tymoshenko attends a session at the Pecherskiy district court in Kiev
Ukrainian ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in court. Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year jail term for abusing her power while serving as the country’s prime minister in 2009. Reuters

So British ministers will be boycotting England's three opening games at the Euro 2012 football tournament being jointly held by Ukraine and Poland?

Apparently the British government feels unable to send its ministers (and how they'll be missed) to Ukraine specifically because of the imprisonment of opposition figure and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which it calls "selective justice".

While "selective justice" is no doubt a bad thing one could equally take umbrage at selective outrage, which the British government is perfecting to an art form. Where was the boycott when China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008?

It may be of interest to the Foreign Office or whoever it is who decides these things that the Chinese government is not unknown to put opposition figures in prison. One might also point out Ukraine does at least have the political capacity to change the governing party once in a while, something notably absent in China.

The point is not to do a bit of China bashing, which anyone can do, it is to point out the absurdity of futile and unprincipled gestures aimed apparently at getting a few good headlines that will allow David Cameron and Nick Clegg to pose, Groucho Marx-like as "very moral men" who hate dirty jokes unless they are told by people who know how to tell them.

Already there has been talk of banning Syrian officials from the upcoming London Olympics in response to atrocities alleged to have been committed by the Syrian government in recent days, weeks and months.

Again there is no doubt that the Syrian regime is a nasty organisation, but while the Olympics has many sponsors Amnesty International is sadly not one of them and nations are not required to have an unblemished human rights record to take part.

If that were so then rather than discussing who to exclude from the Olympics or any other sporting event, we would be working out who should be admitted into a very small club of nations that would exclude large swathes of Africa, and Asia, a bit of South America and Europe and pretty much the whole of the Middle East. The whole "let's put aside our differences" theme of the Olympics might be somewhat lost in that eventuality.

As is well known sport and politics rarely mix well. Those who boycotted South Africa during the Apartheid era can be praised for doing so and yet had they been around to apply their beliefs in 1930's we would probably never have heard of Jessie Owens.

The cricketing boycotts did not bring down Apartheid, they have not brought down Robert Mugabe and the triumph of Jessie Owens failed to convince Hitler and even large parts of the USA of the wrongness of racism.

So should we boycott or should we not? Well that's up to each individual as well as being a decision for the Foreign Office to make. But whatever decision is taken it should at least be consistent. If oppression is intolerable then it must be intolerable whoever does it.