Monday, December 10, 2007

Europe-Africa summit: human rights and a certain Robert Mugabe

The location: Awesomely funky Lisbon, Portugal.
The event: The second European Union-African Union summit: 52 government delegations from Africa; 27 from EU member states. (The first was held in 2000 in Cairo.)
The time: Well, a few days ago, but let’s pretend it’s just starting. (We've been under the weather.)

The first debate: How important is human rights (and, frankly, democracy) when we’d rather talk about trade?

Don’t believe? Check this out from IPS: "It is an unavoidable truth that human rights and democratic values are one level below strategic interests," said researcher Manuela Franco at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations.

The real issue at hand: The Mugabe Case.

Back to IPS:

Observers smelled the first whiff of controversy when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in September that he would not attend the summit if the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, took part. He confirmed the boycott in late November.

Britain, supported by the Netherlands and Denmark, and vaguely, Sweden, claimed its decision is response to the human rights situation in Zimbabwe.

But Portuguese-African observers accuse Britain of turning a blind eye to frequent human rights violations in other African countries, especially Sudan -- in the region of Darfur -- and Ethiopia, but not Zimbabwe, because those affected by the Mugabe regime are white landowners of British descent.

"There are not just two yardsticks, but many, depending on the interests at stake," political analyst Eugenio Costa Almeida told IPS.

"There are humanitarian, political and social reasons to criticise Mugabe and his team, but these were only brought up (in London) after the landowners were ‘nationalised’ and some British firms were touched - although not all of them; for example, British Airways continues to fly to Zimbabwe," said Costa Almeida, who holds a doctorate in political science from a Portuguese university.

As long as the white farmers were not affected by the Zimbabwean government’s policies, "the corruption, misappropriation of funds and theft by Mugabe and his friends went unnoticed by the British," he said.

Help out the white guys
A point well taken. Perhaps they could let magazine editors in on this because Zimbabwe is code for failed state while other, arguably worse, countries have long swam in misrule. (See: Gabon) I sort of buy the argument that most in the West only care because white people have been harmed in this mess. The subtext of this debate has also interested me:

  • Rhodesia = former well run, yet vaguely racist, state;
  • Ian Smith = friendly, if not eccentric, former leader (who at least knew when to step down);
  • Apartheid = former political system, while sometimes unpalatable, at least "produced results."
Of course, who had time for human rights during the Cold War? We could argue they didn’t become an important issue until in 1991. But you’d have to say that to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Willy Brandt and Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Back to the Mugabe moment. For some context, here’s the Zimbabwe portion of the U.S. Dept. of State’s human rights report from 1996 (The earliest edition I could get online):

President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have dominated the legislative and executive branches of Zimbabwe's Government since independence in 1980. The Constitution allows for multiple parties; in addition to ZANU-PF, there are a large number of smaller parties. However, they are poorly organized and led, poorly financed, and subject to periodic intimidation by the ruling party and government security forces. The judiciary is independent, but the Government occasionally refuses to abide by court decisions.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were significant problems in some areas, including incidents of police brutality, harsh prison conditions, the Government's refusal to abide by several court rulings, CIO intimidation of opposition party candidates and their supporters, restrictions on academic freedom, infringements on citizens' privacy, and the banning of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe's stand at the Harare International Book Fair (which was overturned by the courts).

Him, again?
To me, the issue with the Zimbabwe problem is that all the important players (South Africa, the AU, the Southern African Development Community, other neighbors, possibly an EU representative) haven’t met and discussed how best to proceed with a concentrated and coordinated plan to keep the country and its problems from devolving any further.

This is an idea I lifted this from a recent Foreign Affairs article on Burma, where it was argued that the concerned actors must stop dealing with Burma by utilizing the simple dichotomy of either sanctions or trade. This single approach (of these conflicting ideas) will never work. Instead concerned parties should embrace a diversity of approaches, but find a common goal:
"Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation and ultimately the return to democracy.”

Here’s what Michael Green and Derek Mitchell propose for Burma:

The five parties should not be expected to agree on everything or even on a single, uniform approach to the SPDC. Rather, the objective of such discussions would be to encourage a degree of compromise among the participants and coordination among their respective policies so that they may be channeled toward a common end. The current approach -- with each party pursuing its individual policy with an eye as much toward competing with the others for its own advantage as toward promoting change in Burma -- has clearly played into the junta's hands. It has allowed the Burmese government to avoid united international action while still gaining the resources necessary to hold on to power.

The linchpin in their plan is a strong outside actor – they suggest the U.S. – that can coordinate the various parties. Who would take that role over in this Zimbabwe situation? The U.S. has very little influence in that part of the world. Britain will be seen as too involved, too dogmatic to lend any help. Nigeria’s inclusion would most likely piss off the South Africans. Perhaps the Portuguese? Would they be seen as colonizers?

One of the first goals should be to quit making Mugabe the center of the problem and start focusing on Zimbabwe. Mugabe's a lightening rod, but he also commands a lot of respect. Once the international debate moves past him, people can begin to talk rationally and substantively.

At the bottom of this debate is the fact that like Burma, Zimbabwe’s political problems are no longer a local issue: The country faces a food crisis; refugees rush out of Zimbabwe for both political and economic reasons; neighbors are beginning to panic and forcibly repatriate refugees back home. To me, the politics of Mugabe are immaterial: when so many people vote with their feet, though, something needs to be done. These multiplying situations could easily destabilize other nations throughout southern Africa.

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