UK in pursuit of "commercial diplomacy" with Robert Mugabe

Britain is increasingly showing strong signs that it wants to improve its relationship with Robert Mugabe as aides on both sides confirmed this week that a new policy of promoting trade between the two countries is taking off.

This week a Foreign Office spokesman told the media that the UK government has a new focus on what it termed commercial diplomacy and that it is engaging with all sides of the inclusive government, made up of Zanu-PF, the MDC-T and MDC-M.

Last week in London, the UK’s minister for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Henry Bellingham, and the British ambassador to Harare, Mark Canning, met Zanu-PF’s Walter Mzembi, who is Zimbabwe’s tourism minister. Mzembi said the British want to engage and are seeking to be less critical of Mugabe and Zanu-PF. The FCO also arranged a private meeting between Mzembi and UK government officials.

"I was quite happy with the positive view from Bellingham and Canning. They praised the state of affairs in Zimbabwe. It was quite a departure from the previous views of the Labour government," Mzembi said. "They arranged a private meeting for me at the FCO and I met with John Dennis, the head of the Africa Desk."

Mugabe is understood to be pressing for a meeting with Canning in Harare. The British embassy does not want to elaborate about the meeting at present. However, it refuses to deny the meeting will take place. A spokesman said: "I cannot confirm or deny that Mugabe wants to meet with him."

At a panel discussion in London last week, the British spoke of a marked improvement in the human rights situation. Observers say in addition to praising Zimbabwe, Canning and Bellingham warmly acknowledged Mzembi.

The remarks are a sharp contrast with those of numerous civic organisations in Zimbabwe, who condemn ongoing political violence in different parts of the country and are worried it will worsen as the country approaches elections, pegged for next year.

A British embassy spokesman said Canning was not available to clarify his remarks. However, the Foreign Office in London said: "Contact with a wide range of civil society actors, backed by our own observations, suggests that since the formation of the inclusive government there has been a marked fall in the levels of violence since its peak in 2008. The reported numbers of deaths and injuries resulting from human rights abuses are far lower than they were two years ago." An FCO spokesman said they had also mentioned the UK’s concern about intimidation, violence and limited media freedom in Zimbabwe.

Bellingham’s claims of an improvement in human rights in Zimbabwe fit in with those of the UK Home Office, which recently said it is now safe to return failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe.

However, analysts say that the UK’s new decision to openly acknowledge it wants to work with Zanu-PF and establish trade ties with Zimbabwe, is driven more by a need to make commercial gains rather than a so-called improvement in human rights. The real reason for Britain suddenly warming up to Zanu-PF is because it realises it can make substantial gains in business as Zimbabwe is rich in minerals and resources which are benefiting countries such as China, they say.

At the heart of Zimbabwe’s resources is the Chiadzwa diamond fields, estimated to have the capacity to earn billions of US dollars. It is widely reported that top Zanu-PF henchm en control them . Being on the right side of Robert Mugabe could do Britain big favours, commentators say.

Political analyst Brilliant Mhlanga, who was at the panel discussion said: "Britain’s relationship is thawing because of commercial interests. Remember the Tories are pro-business. At the discussion, Bellingham moaned about the human rights issues within the diamonds context, which was contradictory because he had just said that the human rights situation was improving.

"China is not (concerned) about human rights, and the UK is aware of this challenge, and it knows if it plays hard to get it will lose out. It is called constructive engagement."

Anne Frühauf, an analyst for Eurasia, a political and economic research organisation, said: "I don’t think this signals a sea change in diplomatic relations, but it could be the first sign that the Tory-Lib Dem government will take a somewhat more pragmatic approach towards Zimbabwe. It is possible that business interests, rather than human rights concerns, will feature more strongly in foreign policy-making."

A spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said: "The new FCO focus on commercial diplomacy is not at the expense of promoting internationally recognised standards of human rights. Our position on Zimbabwe diamonds is very clearly driven by the principles of the Kimberley Process, and not by national commercial considerations."

Under the previous Labour government Britain strongly favoured the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Ephraim Tapa, chairman of Restoration of Human Rights Zimbabwe, said: "We feel betrayed, it’s like we are being sold for 30 pieces of diamonds. – Timeslive