The British left has forgotten Zimbabwe and as a result, today, Mugabe will profit

by Pete Bowyer

Later today, William Hague will acquiesce in an EU decision to ease sanctions against Zimbabwe. It will be reflective of Britain’s waning influence in Europe, as much as a lack of concern for continuing human rights abuses in the country.

This decision should concern us greatly. Zimbabwe has become one of the forgotten stories of southern Africa now the horrors of the political violence around the last elections in 2008 have dimmed.

But the truth is little has changed on the ground. The country, once known as the bread basket of Africa, is now reliant of foreign food aid, and Mugabe’s grip on power remains as tight as ever.

Take the case of opposition MDC politician, Roy Bennett. In 2009, he was designated Deputy Minister for Agriculture by Morgan Tsvangirai, but Robert Mugabe refused to swear him in. Bennett was later arrested on trumped up charges of treason.

When a magistrate ordered Bennett to be released on remand, the magistrate himself was arrested because “he passed a judgment that is not popular with the state.” This is the state of justice in Zimbabwe today.

The EU attempts to justify its decision on the grounds that Zimbabwe is due to hold a constitutional referendum on 16 March, and this is a sign of progress. A carrot and stick approach is all very well, but the EU should be erring on the side of the stick, not the carrot.

Rather than caving in to Mugabe, we should be standing up to him. For Zimbabwe to have a bright future, it needs serious and strictly implemented reforms. EU policy should be determined on the basis of concrete actions, not Mugabe’s empty promises.

So, a precautionary approach should have been taken, based on three conditions being met.

Firstly, the decision to review EU sanctions should have been taken only after free and fair elections without violence had been held. True, the constitutional referendum is an important benchmark, but it’s the forthcoming elections that will really determine the future for the people of Zimbabwe.

These are due in the summer, and the EU will end up with egg on its face if it decides to ease sanctions now only having to re-introduce them a couple of months later if the elections descend into chaos like they have done so often in the past.

Secondly, the EU should have responded to compelling evidence presented to it by international NGOs such as Global Witness & Human Rights Watch about illegal activity associated with Zimbabwe’s diamond mining.

In their investigations into the blood diamond trade in Zimbabwe, they have shown that $2bn has been siphoned off by allies of Robert Mugabe to finance a parallel government, including off-budget funding of the Secret Police who continue to commit widespread human rights abuses.

Rather than reducing the number of Zimbabwean individuals and entities subject to sanctions, the EU should be adding others. At the top of the list should be Anjin Investment (PvT) Ltd and Hong Kong businessman Sam Pa who are closely linked to illegal activities in relation to the Zimbabwe diamond trade and ongoing human rights abuses.

Finally, The government of Zimbabwe must respect the rule of law and its international legal obligations. Zimbabwe can and should be allowed to fulfil its true potential. But without attracting foreign investment, achieving this goal will be impossible and the country will continue to rely on international aid (the EU is currently the largest aid donor to Zimbabwe) not foreign trade.

Whilst the Zimbabwean government continues to flout international law, it will not be an attractive destination for foreign investors. As a first step, it should compensate its former farmers, including British citizens, whose property it forcibly and illegally dispossessed in the violent land grabs of the 2000s. That will send a positive signal to the wider international business community that the country is once again safe to invest in.

Instead, the EU will ignore an evidence based approach today, and adopt a grubby compromise based on commercial interests. Outrageously, Britain will not even veto it.

There was once a time, not so long ago, when Britain’s position on Zimbabwe would have been pivotal within the EU. Not any more. Instead a coalition of other member states, led by the Belgians who are concerned about the impact sanctions are having on its own diamond trading markets in Antwerp, look set to hold sway.

How could this have happened? How could William Hague, one of the arch-Eurosceptics within the cabinet who is instinctively robust on these matters, have done a volte-face to let narrow Belgian self-interest trump wider British concerns in the region?

The answer is that we on the left have let him get away with it. We have been silent too long. With a few honourable exceptions on the Labour backbenches such as Peter Hain and the indomitable Kate Hoey, we have not cried out at the continuing injustices in Zimbabwe.

Today’s fudge in Brussels will be as much our failure as William Hague’s.

Pete Bowyer is a Labour activist and spokesman for JusticeZimbabwe

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