Joan Smith: There are lies, damned lies and diary clashes

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The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has a diary clash. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, hasn't decided what he's doing that day. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, never intended to be there anyway. With the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics less than four months away, 8 August 2008 is causing as much disarray among world leaders as the unwelcome discovery that a meteorite is hurtling towards us. How are they to react to this totally unexpected event, which has caused protests and threatens to call into question their commitment to human rights? Turn up and look shifty, following revelations that China has broken promises to improve its atrocious human rights record? Announce a boycott and risk the wrath of athletes and (in Brown's case) retaliatory action at the 2012 London games?

There is now a scramble to avoid the embarrassment of appearing at a huge PR exercise for one of the world's most authoritarian regimes. The washing-my-hair position is proving popular, with a UN spokeswoman insisting that her boss had pulled out only because of "schedule issues".

Apparently Mr Brown conveyed much the same message to the Chinese authorities, although in such opaque language that neither they nor the country's media understood it. During a visit to Beijing in January, the Prime Minister managed to sound like a shy sixth-former who's not sure anyone will invite him to the school's summer dance: "I will most certainly come to the Olympic Games if I'm invited," he said coyly. His Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was more forthright, expressing Britain's full support for the Olympics and saying he thought it was "right that the Prime Minister represents us". What this means is that Brown will go to the closing ceremony for the handover, because Britain is hosting the next Olympics, but the British government will be represented at the opening by Olympics minister Tessa Jowell.

Even those European leaders who have declared their intention of not going to the opening ceremony have been ambiguous about their reasons; the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, was first out of the starting-gate, declaring last month that "the presence of politicians at the inauguration of the Olympics seems inappropriate". That's not exactly a resounding condemnation of China's human rights record, even though his example was quickly followed by President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic. The biggest name to date among the no-shows is German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who infuriated China when she received Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, for private talks. But Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, denied that her absence from the opening ceremony constituted a boycott or a protest against China's campaign of repression in Tibet.

What this amounts to is a huge failure of imagination on the part of democratic politicians; not for the first time, Brown's behaviour looks particularly shabby in the light of his unequivocal condemnation of dictatorships during the Burmese protests last autumn. As prime ministers and presidents dither, I can't help thinking that this undignified outbreak of indecision deserves to be set to music by The Clash: should I stay or should I go?