Chatham House (London)

12 February 2013

Zimbabwe: UK-Zimbabwe Relations - Motion Sickness?

analysis

2013 is an important and fraught year for Zimbabwe and also for UK-Zimbabwe relations.

This month, after years of inter-party consultation, negotiations and bickering, the Zimbabwe Constitution Parliamentary Committee (COPAC) presented a much revised draft constitution to parliament for review.

If accepted, the draft constitution will be put to a referendum in March or April, and elections will follow thereafter. Some of the provisions of the draft constitution are, and may remain contentious, and the four-year constitutional process has not been without its critics. But there is a general feeling that, despite its flaws, the post- 2009 constitutional and electoral process has been about moving the country forward.

This sense of progress contrasts with a proposed UK House of Commons Early Day Motion (EDM) on the Viscount Massacres in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The motion, which has been moved by six MPs, notes that 12 February marked the 34th anniversary of the shooting down of two Air Rhodesia Viscount Flights by members of the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) in which 107 people died. Some of the survivors of the crash were subsequently murdered on the ground by bayoneting and shooting.

For the motion to be formally debated in the House of Commons, it needs to have signatory support from a majority of MPs. Although this is unlikely, the proposed motion is ill-advised, for many reasons.

Firstly, although there is no denying that the shooting down of civilian aircraft and subsequent murder of the crash survivors was a brutal act, it has to be remembered that every side - guerrillas and the Rhodesian forces - committed atrocities in Zimbabwe's Liberation War.

The murder by Rhodesian forces (who included some British and American personnel) in refugee camps in Zambia, Mozambique and other countries is still fresh in the minds of many. The EDM, if passed, would reignite the psychological wounds of a war which although ended in 1979, still haunts Zimbabwe today.

Just as importantly, the motion would almost certainly have a disastrous effect on UK-Zimbabwe relations. Since 2009, and despite occasional public spats and lingering issues, both countries have worked hard to re-engage and normalize the acrimonious 2000-08 period.

Although the EDM is not a UK government brief, it is likely to be perceived by many in Zimbabwe as representing or echoing official UK government policy or sentiment. The timing of the EDM adds fuel to the fire: the EU is due to debate Zimbabwe sanctions this week and with the forthcoming referendum and elections in Zimbabwe, there is a real risk that the motion could become a major irritant in UK-Zimbabwe relations.

The motion also gives the impression of a racial agenda and reinforces the idea of a white vs black/ 'them and us' paradigm on Zimbabwe. This is not and should not be the case, but in politics, perception is everything.

Indeed, many white Zimbabweans have expressed their anger about the EDM, pointing out that it unfairly and inaccurately puts them in the same box as die-hard Rhodesians who are locked into a radicalized past.

Lastly, the EDM could potentially set a precedent, pointing towards a future partisan spate of 'atrocity commemorations' not just between UK and Zimbabwe, but wider afield between the UK and its former colonies.

This could have implications for the Commonwealth and its standing as a collegiate and post-racial, forward-looking association of equals. Numerous individuals or groups, using the UK precedent, could stake their claim for massacre commemorations. These could be well intentioned and deeply felt; but anything which appears to be sectarian could cut across attempts at nation-building and international diplomacy.

With regard to Zimbabwe, no one would seek to deny the pain of those who lost friends and family in the Viscount shootings; just as we cannot ignore the trauma of those who survived and lost loved ones throughout the Liberation War. But if we are to acknowledge history and not re-live it, then there must be a better, more inclusive and more re-conciliatory way than this EDM.

Thousands of Early day motions are submitted every year for debate in the UK parliament. Many are frivolous and never see the light of day; others are serious and achieve cross-party support.

For the sake of Zimbabwe and for UK-Zimbabwe relations, it is to be hoped that the EDM proponents will rethink and consult with Zimbabweans. If we want to look to the future and not be hostage to the past, it is clear that this time around there is much that UK parliamentarians can learn from their counterparts in Zimbabwe.

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