31 January 2002

Africa: Commonwealth Ministers Reject Call to Exclude Zimbabwe

Johannesburg — Commonwealth foreign ministers resisted British-backed calls, Wednesday, for the immediate suspension of Zimbabwe from the organisation. But they expressed deep concern about the volatile political situation in Zimbabwe and urged President Robert Mugabe to ensure a peaceful, free and fair election in March.

Meeting in London, the Commonwealth's eight-member democracy watchdog, CMAG (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group), stopped short of British foreign secretary's Jack Straw’s recommendation that Mugabe and his government be temporarily excluded from the Commonwealth and its decision-making bodies.

In a final communique, the group instead voiced its "deep concern over the continued violence, political intimidation and actions against the freedom and independence of the media" in Zimbabwe. It called for the "immediate deployment" of international (election) observers and for the "full cooperation" of the Zimbabwe authorities. It added that all parties should be allowed to campaign freely.

CMAG also deplored the threat by the Zimbabwean military to accept only a winner 'who had fought in the liberation war' - effectively backing Mugabe - in the 9-10 March presidential poll. Its final statement urged "an immediate end to violence and intimidation and that the police and army refrain from party political statements and activities."

CMAG members Botswana and Nigeria, along with Malaysia and Bangladesh, were reported to have resisted Straw’s tough talk while Britain apparently had the backing of Australia, Canada and Barbados.

The foreign minister of Botswana, and CMAG chairman, Mompati Merafhe, told a news conference after the meeting, "the issue that is on the table at the moment is to ensure that we have free and fair elections". Later he added that "the thrust of our effort is to "make sure that the elections go ahead. We don’t want to do anything that is likely to prejudice this. I am an incurable optimist. I can’t afford to be a pessimist."

Both Botswana's and Nigeria's foreign ministers denied that the CMAG meeting had split along racial lines.

After the outcome of the Commonwealth ministers’ day-long meeting, Britain's Jack Straw told reporters; "the overall result is less than we hoped for, but more than we expected," a reference to CMAG’s demand that Zimbabwe accept Commonwealth election observers.

"What we have done today is to set down the most concrete benchmarks by which the conditions in which the elections in Zimbabwe are able to take place, with an overriding imperative - even at this late stage - of trying to secure as free and fair elections as is possible," said Straw.

Harare has accused the former colonial power, Britain, of waging a campaign to demonise Zimbabwe. The Commonwealth decision not to back London’s call to suspend the Zimbabweans, was seen as a rebuff for Britain’s foreign secretary.

The Commonwealth secretary-general, Don McKinnon, said that Zimbabwe’s exclusion would have been an "easy option" but counter-productive just five weeks before the election, and would have left the Commonwealth with no leverage over Mugabe. He repeated the call for the early deployment of a Commonwealth observer mission to Zimbabwe.

Commonwealth heads of government (CHOGM) will meet in Brisbane, Australia, March 2-5, less than a week before the presidential election in Zimbabwe. The ministerial action group will gather on the eve of the opening of CHOGM, where the suspension issue could again be discussed.

Experts say exclusion from the 54-nation Commonwealth would be largely symbolic, but membership of this 'club’ of Britain’s former colonies is prestigious and Mugabe is a long-standing senior leader of the organisation.

Though the British suspension proposal was ignored by the Commonwealth, the Zimbabwean leader still faces possible targetted action by the European Union.

EU ministers agreed this week to freeze assets and impose a travel ban and limited sanctions on 20 leading individuals in President Mugabe's government, and their families, if Harare prevented European observers from monitoring the presidential poll.

Mugabe has said he will accept foreign election observers, except for the British. The BBC has also been banned from reporting from Zimbabwe.

While the Commonwealth ministers were meeting in London, three journalists were arrested outside parliament in Harare. They were part of a media demonstration, broken up by riot police in Zimbabwe, in protest at a draconian new legislation which would give the authorities tight control over local and international reporters.

The move has caused a rift in Robert Mugabe's governing Zanu-PF party, which has a majority in the Zimbabwean parliament. A senior Zanu-PF MP, and former Mugabe minister, Eddison Zvogbo, described the new media bill as "unconstitutional". The party has had to fight to push the bill forward in the face of internal opposition.

The draft media bill has been debated, revised, toned down and amended throughout January. The government was hoping again to make it law on Wednesday, but the debate was adjourned until today, Thursday.

The parliamentary legal committee, which is dominated by Zanu-PF, labelled the bill a threat to free speech and said it gave the government 'frightening powers’ to control the media in the run up to the March poll.

The media bill is part of a series of tough legislation the Zimbabwe government has already managed to ram through parliament, leading to vocal international indignation and the threat of sanctions.

Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, told parliament Wednesday that a revised version of the bill included amendments agreed by the legal committee.

Robert Mugabe is facing the stiffest challenge to his 22 years in power from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

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