Although the Chinese ship that was carrying arms to Zimbabwe, the An Yue Jiang, has reportedly turned back, we don’t know where else Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s military and paramilitary forces may be acquiring weapons. In light of the escalating violent repression of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) — and of those whose support apparently helped the MDC to prevail in the presidential election, the results of which have still not been announced after four weeks – an international arms embargo on Zimbabwe is urgently needed.
In addition, we call on the African Union (AU), with the support of the UN, to send an investigative mission to Zimbabwe to determine what additional measures may be required to carry out the internationally accepted “responsibility to protect.”
The concept of the “responsibility to protect” was adopted unanimously by the UN World Summit in 2005. Yet, it remains controversial because it is often assumed that it implies the use of military force for purposes of humanitarian intervention. We believe, as was recognized at the UN World Summit, that military force should only be a last resort when needed to prevent or halt large-scale loss of life. The first step is to gather reliable information so that it is possible to know what international measures are required to prevent a disaster.
In the case of Zimbabwe, it is extremely difficult to obtain such information. Mugabe’s regime has systematically shut down independent media, attacked independent civil society organizations, denied visas to foreign journalists and has arrested and beaten journalists who nevertheless enter the country.
Foreign observers were present when the voting took place in Zimbabwe on March 29, and their presence helped to ensure that the election itself was peaceful. The observers have long since left the country, however, and the reports that have filtered out suggest that in some parts of the country, Mugabe’s opponents are now experiencing a reign of terror.
The Constitutive Act of the AU provides in Article 4 the “right of the union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity [as well as a serious threat to legitimate order].”
Here too, however, actual military intervention should only be a last resort.
In the case of Zimbabwe, for example, it is possible that sending in unarmed observers from other African countries would be sufficient. Their presence and ability to provide objective information might prevent continuation or further escalation of the violence of the last few weeks to the point where it would require military intervention.
Unarmed observers could also help to ensure that emergency international food assistance, on which much of Zimbabwe’s population now depends for survival, is distributed equitably, without regard to the political leanings of those requiring it.
Earlier this year the AU, through the good work of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, averted a calamity in Kenya after a disputed election led to widespread violence. The danger in Zimbabwe appears to be comparable. Once again, the AU, with the support of the UN, should provide the leadership that would demonstrate that Africa has the capacity and the will to resolve a great crisis in a manner that mitigates the suffering of African people.