|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
In the eyes of the United Nations, Zimbabwe is still just a simmering problem that has yet to boil over and affect the whole region of southern Africa.
As long as that remains the case, the UN is unlikely to follow the European Union down the route of threatening to impose sanctions.
I think we should give the region a chance to see what can be done.
Jagdish Koonjul, Mauritian Ambassador to the UN
Zimbabwe has not reached that stage yet, and although it has become a hot topic of conversation behind closed doors, and in the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York, UN diplomats try to avoid speaking publicly about President Robert Mugabe, and his latest quest to hang on to power.
It is a softly-softly diplomatic approach dictated partly by fears that any attempt to engage President Mugabe is counter-productive.
"I've stopped talking about Zimbabwe," one prominent UN diplomat confided recently, "The problem is that every time I open my mouth, his eminence goes into nuclear meltdown."
About the only person prepared to speak is the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and his utterances are extremely rare.
This month, Mr Annan gave President Mugabe a nudge, urging him to respect freedom of political association, and freedom of the media in the run up to elections scheduled for March.
It was the first time that the secretary-general had said anything about Zimbabwe in more than a year.
John Prendergast, the author of a recent report on Zimbabwe for the International Crisis Group, says comments like this offer encouragement to those struggling under repressive regimes.
"Secretary General Annan's comments may not be all that decisive in influencing President Mugabe, or his leadership," John Prendergast says.
"But what it will do is reinforce the fortitude of those groups, those civil organisations, the political opposition and even those within the ruling party, who are struggling to preserve or strengthen democracy, and sometimes that's all that you can do."
Human rights activists are, however, calling for a much more robust approach.
Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, argues that gentle diplomacy is not the answer to the bully-boy tactics of President Mugabe and his governing Zanu-PF party.
"Clearly, if he's sponsoring crimes of violence, we should be talking about prosecution," he says.
"We should be looking at things like freezing his bank accounts, restricting his travel, doing things that he and his entourage would care about.
"Those are the kinds of sanctions that are meaningful, and targeted, and might actually work."
African nations, even Zimbabwe's closest neighbours who have suffered from the economic fallout of the problems next door, have been the least enthusiastic about getting the UN involved in Zimbabwe's problems.
As a member of the Southern African Development Community, Mauritius is aware of the need for stability in Zimbabwe.
But the Mauritian Ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Koonjul, preaches patience when it comes to calls for UN intervention, and argues that regional diplomatic initiatives should be left to run their course.
"I think we should give the region a chance to see what can be done," he says.
"I'm sure we will be able to find solutions there. We are confident that Africa has the resources, and the wisdom to deal with these problems. It's just a question of time."
These are words that would be welcomed in Harare, where any outside interference is likely to be resisted.
Zimbabwe's Ambassador to the United Nations, Joseph Jokonya believes that if the UN is to get involved in his country, it should only be to offer assistance.
Any interference in domestic political affairs will be regarded with deep suspicion.
"The United Nations is used by the major powers," he said.
"There is no question about that, and the secretary-general, the UN agencies, should always be aware that the countries of the South will scrutinise their actions, and there will always be some suspicion about manipulation of the UN by the major powers."
What looks like manipulation to some, is seen as creative diplomacy by others.
For the moment, the UN is doing neither.
Instead, it is leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United States to apply the pressure, and raise the threat of targeted sanctions in an attempt to persuade the leadership in Zimbabwe to respect the rules of democracy.
A member of parliament from his Zanu-PF party has condemned it as "unconstitutional".
This bill in the original form was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties
On Wednesday, Commonwealth ministers will consider what action, if any, to take against Mr Mugabe.
The media bill would give the government tight control on all journalists operating in the country and foreign correspondents would only be allowed in to cover specific events.
Journalists would have to apply to a government appointed commission for a licence every year and risk two years in prison for breaking a long list of regulations.
The government had originally wanted to pass the bill last year and debate has been delayed on several occasions following criticism from journalists, the international community and southern African leaders.
Some aspects of the bill have been toned down but journalists still plan to take it to court as soon as it is passed by parliament, where Zanu-PF has a two-thirds majority.
"I can say without equivocation that this bill in the original form was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution," said Eddison Zvobgo, chairman of the parliamentary legal committee which vets all legislation.
Mr Zvobgo is a member of Zanu-PF but is a long-standing rival of Mr Mugabe and was sacked from cabinet in 2000.
He has some following among other Zanu-PF MPs.
"It is still a matter of regret that some unconstitutional provisions still remain. It is for that reason that the bill remains unconstitutional," he told parliament.
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said that the bill would be passed later on Tuesday, despite the criticism.
The state-owned Herald newspaper said Mr Mugabe blamed Britain in particular for prompting the decision to impose targeted sanctions if EU election observers are not allowed to deploy within a week.
Mr Mugabe said he would allow international observers to attend the forthcoming polls, but would bar observers from Britain, the former colonial power.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which is due to meet in London on Wednesday, may also consider recommending that Zimbabwe be suspended from the international grouping.
Political violence has increased in recent weeks, ahead of the elections, which are scheduled for 9-10 March.
A decision to suspend Zimbabwe can only be taken by the Commonwealth heads of state.
They next meet in Australia, which begins on 2 March, just days before Zimbabwe's polls.
Several EU members were said to be reluctant to impose immediate sanctions, such as the freezing of assets abroad, arguing that it would give Mr Mugabe's government an excuse to exclude monitors.
But UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who has been pressing his EU colleagues for sanctions, said it was time to put President Mugabe "on the spot".
According to the Herald, Mr Mugabe said the EU was demonising Zimbabwe despite the fact that the country had a tradition of regular and democratic elections.
Officials in Malawi said that at least 39 southern African parliamentarians were scheduled to observe the polls in Zimbabwe.
The Associated Press news agency said that lawmakers from the Southern African Development Community - a 14-nation economic bloc - would arrive in Zimbabwe at least a month ahead of the elections.
The sanctions threat has been welcomed by the Zimbabwean pro-democracy pressure group, the National Constitutional Assembly.
Spokeswoman Perpetua Bganya told the BBC that the Zimbabwean electorate was currently living in extreme fear, even government supporters.
She said the presence of international observers might give people the confidence to go out and vote.
Australia's push to have Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth was unlikely to succeed and even sanctions could be difficult to impose, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today.
Mr Downer doubted tomorrow's Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting in London would reach a consensus on what action to take against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
He said CMAG would probably make recommendations to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), to be held in Queensland in March, but even then he was not confident of action being taken against Mr Mugabe who has been accused of planning to rig upcoming elections amid a campaign of terror against opposition parties, their supporters and the media.
"We support the British call, it's a point that we've made on many occasions, Zimbabwe is in breach of the Harare Declaration and should be suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth," Mr Downer said.
"And that should be done by the heads of government. Whether you get a consensus to do that, I think that would be very hard to do."
While the chances of a consensus for suspension appeared faint, so too were the prospects of economic sanctions, although Mr Downer believed the Commonwealth should follow the European Union's lead.
The EU yesterday unanimously agreed to place visa bans on Mr Mugabe and other senior government members and their families and to freeze assets they held in Europe.
The sanctions would be imposed if Mr Mugabe denied free access for the international media during the campaign for the March 9-10 election, if his government stepped up attacks on the opposition and if the poll was not judged to be free and fair.
"I don't know whether the Commonwealth itself will go down the path of sanctions but anything like that will be a matter for the heads of government," Mr Downer said.
"I think if there are sanctions, we would look at the type of measures the European Union is considering rather than economic sanctions.
"President Mugabe has imposed his own economic sanctions on his country by presiding over a crumbling economy which has seen the GDP fall by about 25 per cent in the last year so there's no need for anyone else to take further measures."
Tomorrow's meeting of the eight-member CMAG, the Commonwealth's democratic watchdog, consists of Australia, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Barbados, Bangladesh, Canada, Nigeria and Botswana, which will chair the meeting.
Mr Downer said there was little the meeting could do other than decide on recommendations to take to the 54 leaders at CHOGM.
Mr Mugabe's expected absence, however, may make it a 53-member meeting as he is unlikely to travel to Queensland only days before the Zimbabwean poll in which he is desperate to extend his 22-year rule.
By Paul Mulvey
Eddison Zvogbo, head of a parliamentary legal committee, said: “I can say without equivocation that this Bill was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution in the 20 years I served as Cabinet minister.”
Dr Zvogbo, who was dropped from the Cabinet in 2000, said that the draft law to license journalists breached the constitution in at least 20 respects. The committee that he heads said that the Bill, framed by Jonathan Moyo, the Information Minister, was obscure, vague, ill-conceived and dangerous.
Ministers made clear that they planned to override the objections and would press ahead with the legislation. The Bill is seen as vital weapon in Mr Mugabe’s armoury to help him to win the presidential elections in March.
Freedom of expression, enshrined in Zimbabwe’s Constitution, was synonymous with freedom of speech, Dr Zvogbo said. “Ask yourself whether it is rational for a government in a democratic and free society to require registration, licences and ministerial certificates in order for people to speak.”
Britain will intensify its diplomatic offensive against Zimbabwe today when Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, presses Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to suspend the country’s membership.
Speaking only a day after the European Union threatened to impose economic sanctions on Harare unless it admits election observers this weekend, Mr Straw said that he wanted similar pressure to be exerted by the Commonwealth and the United States.
“I will be arguing for a recommendation to suspend Zimbabwe because violent intimidation of the Opposition and the media should have no place in the Commonwealth,” he said before today’s meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.
The eight ministers in the group are obliged to uphold democratic principles among the 54 nations of the Commonwealth. They have the power to exclude Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth’s main bodies and to recommend to heads of government meeting in Australia in March that its membership should be suspended.
“The decision is one for the Commonwealth as a whole . . . I am not going to predict whether there is going to be a consensus either tomorrow or at (the summit),” Mr Straw said.
Britain, Canada and Australia have been fierce critics of Zimbabwe but other Commonwealth members, particularly African nations, have been more muted in their criticism. British diplomats said it was not clear whether they were now ready to support action against Zimbabwe.
Nevertheless Harare is facing unprecedented pressure before the presidential elections. Six EU election monitors are due to arrive in Zimbabwe on Saturday. If they are not admitted the EU has decided to impose a travel ban and freeze the assets of 20 senior Zimbabwean figures, including President Mugabe.
“President Mugabe has five days to make up his mind: international observers or international sanctions. Fair elections or face the penalty,” Mr Straw said. “He has a well established record for delaying tactics but we’ve got no intention of playing games.”