The Case for UN Reconsideration of the Zimbabwean Matter

OPINION – Now that the international community has confronted two of Africa's most ruthless dictators – Cote d'Ivoire's Laurent Gbagbo and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi – is it time for the UN Security Council to reconsider its handling of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, as he steps up his campaign of violence against the opposition?\r\n

“What more has to happen before we who are leaders, religious and political, of our mother Africa are moved to cry out ‘Enough is enough?'” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu

When the matter of President Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe was referred to the UN Security Council in 2008, no strong action resulted, despite Mugabe’s long record of violent suppression of opponents. Almost three years later, Zimbabwe remains a failed state arguably ignored by many in the international community. The opposition politicians in the Government of National Unity (GNU), a coalition government formed after the 2008 election crisis, have been able to do little on their own to transform Zimbabwe’s police state. By retaining all of the ministries – such as Defense, Justice and Media, which, Dr Knox Chitiyo notes, “underlay the coercive apparatus of the state” – and by maintaining political groups capable of waging extra-judicial violence in support of the regime, Mugabe sustains his violent campaign against domestic opposition with relative impunity.

Ultimately, rising levels of intra-state violence coupled with violations of international law (especially UN Security Council sanctions) should provide American and European policymakers with an imperative to force the Security Council to reconsider the Zimbabwean matter.

Threats to human security: Post-national unity

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The distribution of power within the GNU clearly favors Mugabe, who retains almost exclusive dominion over the state security apparatus. According to Freedom House, this enables militias affiliated with Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), to operate as de facto enforcers of government policies and commit assault, torture, rape, extralegal evictions and executions without fear of punishment. Zimbabwe remains high on the Failed States Index, behind only Somalia, Chad and Sudan.

Following the creation of the GNU, the development of a new constitution was heralded as a necessary benchmark for a peaceful transition to a more democratic Zimbabwe. Ironically – or perhaps predictably – much of the violence since 2008 has centered on this issue. Once public consultations on the constitution got underway in 2009, ZANU-PF supporters repeatedly interrupted the meetings, prevented opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party supporters from attending, and assaulted participants, according to the 2010 Conflict Barometer. Faced with new accusations of political violence, the government then detained and expelled Manfred Nowak, the UN torture investigator, who came to investigate human rights abuses. In late 2010, outreach meetings in Harare and Chitungwiza were suspended due to a wave of violence blamed on Zanu-PF, military and security agents.

Mugabe continues to feel threatened by the possibility of a new constitution, and the elections that will undoubtedly be required. He is willing to use charges of terrorism to illegally jail civil society dissidents, and forcefully vacate MDC MPs from office by arresting them. His regime even appears willing to politicize the Anglican church to undermine religious freedom.

With public consultations reportedly completed – possibly paving the way for new elections – there are clear indications of rising violence in Zimbabwe. This is not unexpected, as violence directed at the MDC historically increases in the run-up to elections. The unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East also appears to be playing a role, leading to preemptive arrests of civil society activists who the regime believes are being inspired by those events.

These developments suggest a bleak future for human security in Zimbabwe and raise fears that Mugabe will use the next election to seize absolute control of the state. If threatened with the existential threat of regime change, the fight for Zimbabwe, waged by an aging dictator who once boasted of having a degree in violence, could devolve into an international crisis of unknown proportion – unless external actors intervene.

Threats to international peace and stability

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Increasingly, Zimbabwe is also cementing its reputation as a regional pariah state amid allegations of violating the Côte d’Ivoire arms embargo, sending mercenaries to Libya and pursuing uranium sales to Iran. If these claims are corroborated, it would undermine the arguments put forth by the Security Council in 2008, when it argued that action against Zimbabwe was unwarranted because it did not represent a threat to international peace and stability.

● Ivory Coast: Thomson Reuters states that the UN is investigating suspected Zimbabwean arms transfers to Côte d’Ivoire’s incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, in violation of UN sanctions.

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● Iran: A recently leaked intelligence report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) appears to substantiate claims of a nuclear partnership between Tehran and Harare. Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, did little to allay concerns, claiming that UN sanctions to prohibit the transfer of raw materials to Iran that could be used to make nuclear weapons were “unfair and hypocritical”.

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● Libya: The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said it believed that Zimbabwean nationals were among the thousands of foreign fighters Gaddafi is relying on to cling to power. When confronted over the issue in parliament, Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa skirted the issue, saying that it was not his duty to investigate the claims.

In the midst of these allegations, Mugabe’s regime has also become increasingly hostile to Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa and the South African Development Community representative responsible for oversight of the GNU. As the international community largely relies on South Africa to promote more responsible government in Zimbabwe, this confrontational attitude should be of concern.

Security Council options

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Zimbabwe’s alleged behavior in illegal weapons transfers and nuclear proliferation is emerging as a concern for the US and others, but, in the absence of decisive action in support of international norms, the international community risks enabling another international humanitarian crisis. With elections – and the related threat of political terror – on the not-too-distant horizon, the case for the international community immediately reconsidering its response to Zimbabwe is stronger than ever.

Bringing the matter before the UN Security Council represents the best approach, as it is bestowed with the coercive policy tools necessary for reigning in Mugabe and pre-empting further violations against human rights and international laws, including:

Establishing an international arms embargo against the Mugabe regime; Referring known human rights violations to the International Criminal Court; Establishing an ad hoc commission to investigate specific human rights abuses; Adopting targeted international sanctions against specific leadership figures and their supporters.

Security Council members also can recommend denying Zimbabwe the right to sell Chiadzwa field diamonds on the international market. This not only would send a strong message that ongoing human rights violations will not be tolerated, but it also would prevent Zanu-PF from using the sales to illegally finance political violence in the run-up to future elections.

While these approaches certainly cannot resolve the crisis on their own, they likely would force Mugabe to play a different hand, one that takes account of higher risks and lower rewards for violent behavior.

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Eddie Walsh is completing post-Master’s coursework at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He formerly served as a visiting scholar in South Africa, where he researched the regional security implications of land reform policy in the Southern African Development Community