Our sense of compassion is shamefully dependent on a victim's race or religion, says Robert Fisk
WHEN the Prince and Princess of Wales paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's Crown Prince jetted out of the country just before the state dinner. Was he snubbing them? The Sun had no doubt. Next morning, it made its own contribution to Anglo-Saudi relations by running a front-page photograph of the offending crown prince under the headline: "Rat of the Desert".

Last week's tabloid assertions that the nurses Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan were innocent of Yvonne Gilford's murder thus followed a familiar pattern. Arab nations may invite our royals to visit or our nurses to work but the mere suggestion of an insult - let alone an accusation of murder - and the host country is turned into a nation of unreliable, untrustworthy, sexually aggressive natives.

The inherently racist element in all this disguises a far more dangerous double standard. It is, for example, perfectly true that Saudi "justice" fails to meet all international judicial standards, that it frequently condemns to a terrible death men - and women - who in some cases are totally innocent of trumped-up charges against them. When I called an old Saudi friend last week to ask for his reaction to the release of the British nurses, he replied: "The double standard applies only in the sense that the British women were granted the right to a defence lawyer. I'm not allowed the right to a lawyer in a Saudi court..."

He had a point. Indeed, more than two years ago, I spent weeks in the Gulf researching the cases of women accused of murder who - unlike Parry and McLauchlan - were not pardoned by a king or an emir. On one occasion, I discovered, a Saudi woman and her daughter were publicly beheaded in Dhahran - after being held in the same prison in which the British nurses were later to be incarcerated - for the alleged murder of the woman's husband. They had no defence lawyers at their "trial". The executioner tore off their veils and chopped off their heads. In the United Arab Emirates, a Sri Lankan girl was condemned to death for her alleged murder of a baby; she denied the charge and claimed she had been raped. Just days before her 19th birthday, she was dragged, weeping and pleading for mercy, before a firing squad which gunned her down.

Not a single newspaper editorial appeared, anywhere. No tabloid outrage. No television reconstructions. The world's press showed no interest in these atrocities. Being dark-skinned and brown-eyed, these poor people were simply not worthy of our compassion. In the past two years, 132 people have had their heads cut from their bodies with a sword in Saudi Arabia. Hardly a soul - certainly not our own ethics-heavy and weapons-selling government - has complained.

By an odd coincidence, the visit of Emperor Akihito of Japan to Britain this week provides another example of our selective compassion. British veterans are demanding a real apology - and cash - from the Japanese for their treatment in Second World War prisons. They are quite right to do so. Nowhere else were Allied prisoners of war treated more savagely than they were by the victorious Japanese who indulged in an orgy of Saudi-style head- chopping along the Burma Road. Yet a brief glance at the history of those outrages shows that the native inhabitants of Japan's "Greater South-East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" suffered much more terribly.

While 16,000 Allied prisoners died, another 100,000 Asian slave labourers fell victim beside them - of execution, torture and disease. When Professor Kinju Morikawa attempted to write a Japanese schoolbook in the early 1990s that faced up to Japan's wartime crimes, a government "screening examiner" demanded the deletion of all reference to the country's Unit 731 biological- warfare testing plant at Harbin, where Allied as well as Asian prisoners were used as guinea pigs in vile experiments, and then murdered. When the professor sought to describe the rape of tens of thousands of Chinese women in Nanking, he was told by the official to delete the passage because "it is common throughout the world for troops to rape women during war".

But it is the plight of Our Boys that has hijacked our compassion for Japan's wartime victims. Save for some ritual tut-tutting over the use of "comfort women" by Japanese soldiers - enforced prostitution which perhaps gained publicity in the West because it was titillating - we have largely ignored the pain of Asian-born victims. Even in Europe we did this, when the Second World War was at its height. German troops captured thousands of Algerian soldiers who were serving in the French army during the fall of France, starved them and then threw raw meat into their barbed- wire compounds. Camera crews were on hand to record the "bestial" behaviour of the native army. Some of those Algerians were later murdered. But how many readers have heard of these incidents?

The West was slow to acknowledge the fact of the Jewish holocaust - yet even today we largely disregard the terrible holocaust visited upon the Gypsies by those same Nazi murderers. They were stuffed into the same railway wagons as the Jewish victims, sent to the same death camps, killed in the same way. At a Gypsy convention in Vienna in 1987, an elderly man walked up to me with a number tattooed on his arm. "Why don't you care about us?" he asked. Good question. Because he spoke Romany? Because he was slightly darker-skinned than the average European? Because his ancestors supposedly came from Asia?

We saw something similar at the start of the Bosnian war when our masters were trying to persuade the world that the Muslims were almost as bad as the Serbs. We were fed a diet of "age-old ethnic conflicts" and told how even Hitler couldn't control the Balkans. (For evidence of this nonsense, read the contemporary scripts of Malcolm Rifkind's lamentable press conferences.) Had the Muslims been Christians, compassion might have come sooner. Even in Chechnya, we failed initially to understand the suffering of the people. True, we thought, the Russian soldiers were brutal, but the Chechens were a mafia society, their leaders corrupt, their people in slavery to local godfathers. There was an element of truth in all this, but the Chechens were Muslims also, and this might well have been why there were no public demonstrations of solidarity with the Chechens. In Kosovo now, we are repeatedly told that the majority population is "ethnic Albanian" (true) rather than Muslim (more to the point).

So it goes on. We feel sorry for the present-day Algerian villagers slaughtered by supposed "Islamists". Less sorry for the Algerians tortured to death in police stations or "disappeared" by the security forces. We care - rightly - about Israel's security, but prefer to let the smartly dressed, American-educated Benjamin Netanyahu tell the Palestinian leader - with his funny uniform and his odd head- dress - whether or not his people, who are darker-skinned and brown-eyed, can have their freedom. On the 50th anniversary of Israel's creation, the CBS television network in the United States laid on a birthday show from Hollywood with Michael Douglas, Kevin Costner, Winona Ryder and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not once in two hours did anyone mention the 700,000 Palestinians evicted from their homes to make way for the new Israeli state in 1948 and 1949.

Go back a little further to 1915 when the Turks visited a holocaust against the Armenians, murdering 1,500,000 of them in the 20th century's first genocide. At the time, American statesmen and diplomats, missionaries and religious societies, British cabinet ministers and members of parliament denounced the barbarities of the Muslim Turks. Yet now in the United States, academics are accepting Turkish-funded university chairs of Turkish studies in which the Armenian holocaust does not feature; one of those academics, an American, is already notorious for denying the Armenian holocaust, claiming the massacres were merely part of a "civil war". A recent shameful article by a New York Times correspondent acknowledged that "vast numbers" of Armenians were killed in 1915, but referred to these events as being "hotly debated". Even the poor old Armenians - and there aren't many survivors left - are sliding down our compassion chute. Maybe we simply do not realise that we sympathise with victims on religious or racial grounds.

It's a sad reflection at the end of our millennium to know that the world we claim to have "globalised" can still be cut up into black, brown and white, into Christian and Muslim and Jew. Never mind who snubbed Prince Charles or who killed Nurse Gilford. There'll always be a rat of the desert. And we'll decide who experiences most pain when the executioner's sword falls.