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Zimbabwe: Time for International Action


The International Crisis Group (ICG) published a detailed report in summer 2001 that found Zimbabwe to be in a severe political and economic crisis, characterised by state-directed violence aimed at crushing political opposition and by growing potential for internal conflict and regional instability. It concluded that the international community should make strenuous efforts to persuade President Robert Mugabe that presidential elections scheduled for 2002 should be conducted freely, fairly and on a level playing field in order to return the rule of law to Zimbabwe and move the country away from the precipice on which it teeters.

ICG recommended that if President Mugabe did not halt the downward slide and establish the preconditions for free and fair elections, the international community should isolate Mugabe and the leadership of his ZANU-PF party and thereby bring pressure to bear for positive change. Chief among those recommendations were targeted, “smart” sanctions and aid to the opposition and civil society.

The three months since that report was issued have seen increased international activity. In particular, a special delegation of Commonwealth foreign ministers reached an agreement with Zimbabwe at Abuja, 6-7 September, that aimed to set standards for land reform, an issue that has been used by the government as a cover to dismantle democratic institutions and position itself, violently, for victory in the 2002 elections. Immediately following Abuja, a delegation of leaders from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) visited Zimbabwe and delivered a strong message that it was vital to the region’s stability for the country to return to the rule of law.

ICG dispatched a field mission to Zimbabwe in the second half of September to assess whether those important initiatives were bearing fruit, or there were at least signs that President Mugabe intended a more positive policy. Regrettably, ICG has determined that the situation is deteriorating. Violent occupations of white-owned farms and forced displacement of thousands of black farm workers continue in violation of the Abuja agreement. Violence and intimidation continue to be used by the ruling party to capture political by-elections, to shackle what remains of a free press and to convert the country’s once highly respected and independent judiciary into a reliable instrument for implementation of the president’s policies.

Everything which has brought Zimbabwe to the verge of collapse and first excited the concern of its neighbours in southern Africa, its partners in the Commonwealth, and its friends around the world continues to be done in order to lay the groundwork, by any means necessary, for a Mugabe and ZANU-PF victory in next year’s presidential election.

ICG’s mission revealed that, assuming no new elements, there is little chance for free and fair 2002 presidential elections, which is the central objective of most domestic efforts to bring about positive change. ICG interviewed dozens of displaced farm workers, civil society activists, shopkeepers, politicians, lawyers, businesspersons, housewives, taxi drivers, and civil servants, all of whom argued that only new international pressure has a chance of improving this prospect.

President Mugabe has tried to confuse the international community about the source of Zimbabwe’s problems, articulating the central issue as a historic grievance regarding land distribution, with racial roots. The opposition and broader civil society articulate the central issue as one of human rights, with roots in the need for constitutional reform (to check presidential abuse of power), stronger democratic institutions, free and fair elections, lawful land reform, and rule of law. In fact, the government has used serious issues such as land redistribution cynically as pawns in an effort to cling to power. Human rights and the need for lawful land redistribution are inextricably linked; one cannot exist without the other.

ICG’s conclusion is that it is time for the international community to raise its pressure to the next level by instituting “smart” sanctions against Mugabe and the ZANU-PF leadership and providing direct aid to the opposition and civil society organizations. The purpose of these measures is to encourage positive policy changes in Zimbabwe while time remains and to give encouragement to the people of that country who are working for such change. It is all the more important that they be undertaken now lest the international community’s concentration on the crisis provoked by the terrorist attacks of 11 September in the United States, which led to postponement of the Commonwealth Summit that was to have considered the Zimbabwe case this month, cause President Mugabe to believe that he has free run to continue his disastrous policies.


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