The announcement by Zimbabwean government officials that they would pull the country out of the Commonwealth following their continued suspension raised the stakes dramatically, ironically on the eve of International Human Rights Day on December 10. This has serious implications for the organisations capacity to promote human rights in Africa and amongst non-African countries.
If the commonwealth takes no further action, it would appear all a country has to do to side step its authority is to withdraw from it. If however it decides to take further steps against the Zimbabwean government as provided for in its Harare principles, it risks widening the split in the organisation and triggering a spiralling crisis. It is significant that the 14 member Southern African Development Community (SADC) issued a statement on the 10th of December expressing its "displeasure and deep concern with the dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude displayed by some (Commonwealth) members." The organisation called for “engagement” and “not isolation” saying, isolation “will do nothing to assist the people of Zimbabwe overcome their difficulties".
In this respect, a strong complicating factor is the apparent double standards exhibited by some ‘western’ governments. The idea for instance that any government could float the idea of relaxing sanctions on, or even ending the suspension of Pakistan while simultaneously calling for stiffer penalties against Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth may yet rank in history alongside the worlds biggest foreign policy blunders. Some Asian countries especially India, which is a traditional opponent of Pakistan, would also have watched this closely. Alluding to this David Ellery, writing in the letters pages of the UK Guardian of December 9 2003, stated, “Mugabe is missing a trick. All he has to do is offer to send a token force to Iraq and Blair and Bush will be praising him as a bulwark of democracy and human rights.”
This double standards and what is seen by some African governments as covert support by some ‘western’ governments for opposition interests opposed to land reform has not only strengthened Mugabe’s resolve, it has mobilised his party behind him as well as those African governments that share a similar colonial past.
However, it is important to remember that the central problem as regards Zimbabwe is not the resolution of the problems in the Commonwealth. The central problem is the resolution of the crisis in Zimbabwe. The contradictions in the Commonwealth have long existed and Zimbabwe has only brought them to the fore again.
To many around the world [including within the Commonwealth], the crisis has several sides to it. To some the question is “are you for land reform or not?” To others the question is “are you for democracy and human rights or not?”
These questions have been shaped by the perceptions that to be strongly for land reform suggests uncritical support for the Mugabe government and its policies and that to be strongly for human rights and democracy suggests an uncritical alliance with ‘white farmers’, ‘former colonial masters’ or the opposition as currently represented by the MDC.
This conundrum confirms that as is sometimes the case, the perception is as important as the reality. In this case, key factors behind these perceptions are race and political convenience.
Conflicts that are complicated by race and ideology are often tricky waters to navigate. It is necessary therefore to be courageous and unambiguous in standing by principles that will facilitate consistency. In the case of Zimbabwe, it is time for courage.
It is therefore possible in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, to stand:
- For democracy;
- For the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, assembly, and political participation;
- Media freedom;
- And simultaneously recognise the urgent need for land reform and redistribution to correct the injustices of colonialism based on racist oppression, discrimination and exploitation.
It is also principled to stand for correction of colonial injustices and simultaneously demand that the need for land reform and redistribution should not and cannot be used as an excuse or cover to sanction violence and murder. Land reform can and must be carried out but only on a constitutional and equitable basis. This should have been the position of the Commonwealth; this should be the position of the African Union and of the SADC.
It is important to sort out the Zimbabwean crisis now on the basis of clear and unambiguous democratic principles not just for Zimbabwe, but also because the land problem may rear its head in South Africa sooner than many think. If it manifests in South Africa on the same basis as it has in Zimbabwe then the legacy of apartheid, the unresolved issues around race, the economic divide, the sharper role of ideology in the liberation struggle and the size of the country and economy – all will combine to make it far worse than it could ever be in Zimbabwe.
Africans and democratic minded African leaders and governments must not allow perceived ‘western’ double standards to distort their views on democracy. It is possible for President Mugabe to be a former liberation fighter, to have been once democratically elected and to now pursue undemocratic policies. Violence is not necessary to ensure land reform in Zimbabwe. It is also not justified by the fact that colonial settlers used violence and murder to illegitimately seize land from Africans. Had it been determined to do so before it started facing political problems, the Mugabe government could have enforced land reform in a constitutional, legitimate and equitable way at any time in the last two decades.
For this reason African rights campaigners must be steadfast on the question of rights and democracy in Zimbabwe and appreciate the fact that support for democratic principles in Zimbabwe is not the same as endorsing the policies of “western interests”, or any opposition parties or organisations. International rights campaigners and non-African governments must also be clear and unequivocal that in addition to campaigning for democratic principles that they stand for land reform and redistribution as a step towards correcting the injustices of Zimbabwe’s colonial past. If not, they risk becoming part of the problem instead of contributing to the solution.
Given the opportunity, the people of Zimbabwe will make the right choices and these choices will in the long run be consistent with democratic principles, human rights and correcting the injustices of the colonial past on a constitutional, just and equitable basis.
*Sankore is a member of the Pambazuka Editorial Board and is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights, which works on rights issues in Africa. CREDO can be contacted via Pambazuka News or via [email][email protected]
* See the Letters and Comments section of Pambazuka News for letters and debate on Zimbabwe.