The human rights situation in Zimbabwe remains precarious, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said at a press conference in Harare, ending a six-day mission during which she met with senior government ministers, human rights activists and victims of human rights violations.

"Persistent and serious human rights violations, combined with the failure to introduce reform of the police, army and security forces or address impunity and the lack of clear commitment on some parts of the government are real obstacles that need to be confronted by the top leadership of Zimbabwe," she said.

At the same time Irene Khan acknowledged the frank dialogue and open access given to Amnesty International by the government.

South Africa could do more

Zimbabwe is a sovereign state, but it is also subject to international law, says Dr. Jochen von Bernstorff, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute for International Law in Heidelberg. He told Deutsche Welle that there is only little the international community can do without a cross regional consensus to act.

"The UN Human Rights Council is a mechanism to put pressure on governments, but it all depends upon the willingness of the political actors: if there is no majority to criticise a government, then of course it’s very difficult to exert pressure."

South Africa is Zimbabwe’s major trade partner and main electricity supplier. It wouldn’t take much to exert economic pressure on Harare, if Pretoria wanted to. Von Bernstorff hopes that South Africa’s new president, Jacob Zuma, is considering taking a tougher approach towards Zimbabwe than his predecessor Tabo Mbeki.

"South Africa seems to be the only country, which is able to influence the political situation in Zimbabwe. This has to do with the economic ties, which are quite close between the two countries. There also is the hope that the new South African president is more willing to put pressure on President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I think economic pressure is very important, because without the support of South Africa, Zimbabwe is completely isolated," he said.

Mugabe still popular in Africa

While European former colonial powers and the United States condemn President Robert Mugabe’s understanding of human rights and blame him for the catastrophic economic situation in his country, many African nations have a more moderate view, said von Bernstorff.                                               

"Many African countries have been reluctant to criticize Mugabe openly. Mugabe still seems to be a popular figure in many African countries, due to his anti-colonial rhetoric. The initiatives within the UN to criticize Mugabe have failed in the past, because African countries have been very reluctant to support such initiatives, which very often were initiated by the west. There is a sort of regional African solidarity against what many African diplomats perceive as ‘human rights lectures’ from former colonial powers."

The German international law expert doubts whether Mugabe’s power-sharing deal with his former opponent and new prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, is going to significantly improve the human rights situation in Zimbabwe.

"It’s hard to predict whether the former opposition will have a substantial say in human rights affairs as long as Mugabe remains in power. But from what we have seen in the last weeks, there is no reason to be overly optimistic."

And that’s a view shared by Amnesty International’s Irene Khan. "For the climate of intimidation to end, President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai must make public statements clearly instructing all party activists to stop harassment, intimidation, and threats against perceived political opponents."

And then there’s the matter of institutional reforms which have been promised in the past. Amnesty International said it had received no clear indication from the government in Harare as to when, how or whether those vital reforms would take place in Zimbabwe. Deutche-Welle