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Drawing lessons from Egypt to shape EU policy on Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
July 04, 2013

In the wake of the Egyptian coup, a prominent Zimbabwe blogger quipped, “The "thing" called democracy is very confusing. President Morsi of Egypt was elected "democratically", however, the people are saying he has failed to rule "democratically" and the army, though not elected, has decided to "democratically" remove Morsi in order for "democracy" to take effect?”. In the weeks leading to the Egyptian uprising, a report by the European Court of Auditors found that EU development aid to Egypt intended to promote human rights and good governance has largely been squandered. Much of it went directly to the Egyptian authorities, who refused to commit to human rights and democracy programmes, while 4 million euros allocated to civil society groups was subsequently cancelled. In the same vein, President Obama had promised President Morsi billions of developmental aid if he agreed to set aside parochial political interests for national good.

The above scenarios highlight the inherent supposed pitfalls in the neo-liberal democracy founded on the Washington Consensus. In Egypt, there is a real danger of extremists resorting to violence, and justifying their actions on the disappointing results of democracy. Whereas in countries such as Zimbabwe, there is a palpable danger that Zanu-PF will feel vindicated and feel more empowered through its propaganda that western imposed democracy does not work. Given this predicament, how should policy makers, particularly within the EU respond?

In our humble opinion, the pitfalls of the fledgling Egyptian democracy should not lead Europe to back pedal on its ambitious new strategic framework on human rights and democracy which was adopted by its Council of foreign ministers a year ago. Further the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights has already posted moderate results for the year 2011-12 which should be built on.

When viewed in the Egyptian context, the EU’s current policy on Zimbabwe is only correct in one respect, especially that, “Contrary to many expectations, a government change may have only a slim impact on democratic quality”. However, there is a danger that that this might be misinterpreted to mean that there shouldn’t be a change of government in Zimbabwe.

One blogger echoes our sentiments, “ From the recent primary elections neutral observers would conclude that MDC-T is just Zanu-PF by another name (albeit a poor imitation). Given that reality, the electorate will vault and vote for the real McCoy. There is a great possibility of a major event a few days before elections that will result in MDC-T mortally splitting. I project a government of national salvation getting formed from a coalitionary arrangement between the (MDC) splinter group, MDC-Ncube, and a new face Zanu-PF. In a dramatic real politik sleight of hand, Professor Welshman Ncube will get to lead Zimbabwe in a rotating Presidency arrangement in a move that will assuage the ghosts of Gukurahundi”.

It is disappointing that the EU's current policy appear to be echoing such sentiments when they equated Zanu-PF’s lack of democratic roots and the MDC’s lack of trustworthiness. Such equation of moral probity overlooks a number of factors, particularly that Zanu-PF’s moral probity is not only limited to the lack of democratic roots but a history of repression and a total disregard of the right to life upon which all other rights are contingent.

This equation also overlooks the unequal political footing within Zimbabwe as well as the sentiments echoed by the MDC on Wednesday, 03 July 2013, in an article titled ‘A New Zimbabwe beacons’, which in part states that, ‘We have travelled this long, painful and arduous journey together all these years and have survived all the trials and tribulations presented to us by Zanu-PF over the years; we cannot afford to relent in this last hour of our journey.”

By drawing lessons from Egypt, perhaps the EU needs to adopt a dual strategy premised on ensuring that the forthcoming elections are free, fair and credible but also focussing on the issue participatory democracy based on the understanding that real sustainable political change ought to be organic and sustained by changed social attitudes towards politics. Currently Zimbabweans, unlike the Egyptians do not owe allegiance to their country but to political parties. The focus should be on nurturing the values that we collectively cherish as a nation.

While the EU are correct in stating that government turnover does not guarantee democratic change in Zimbabwe on the basis that Zanu-PF lacks democratic roots; but the MDC has, for its part, done little to prove its trustworthiness, they are wrong in concluding that, “Rather than asking who is in power, international analysts might want to put a stronger focus on how to actually improve Zimbabwe’s political culture and institutions”. While it is important to improve political culture and institutions, political renewal is also necessary to the extent that it is symbolic and has the effect of jogging tired politicians from their complacency.

By stating that, ‘Foreign actors need to act very carefully to avoid unintended outcomes’, the EU has placed itself in an inextricable trap of Zanu-PF ‘regime change’ propaganda. As the EU Foreign Affairs Council prepare to meet later this month to evaluate the human rights framework they adopted last year, they should borrow a leaf from Edward McMillan-Scott, Vice-President of the European Parliament for Human Rights & Democracy who stated that, “Europe must stop whispering on human rights. It must not only speak with one voice, it must speak loudly and without hesitation. It is high time that the EU and its member states translated words into action and put human rights centre-stage”- EU Observer (27.06.2013).

The EU must be in a position to articulate a coherent and consistent approach to human rights that makes full use of its combined economic and political clout on the global stage. So far there is so much prevarication and lack of message discipline as there is a clear policy chasm between the British on one hand and the Scandinavian states on the other. It is sad that the British voice does not loom large in Brussels, and disappointingly, the reasons premised on its past colonial relationship with Zimbabwe has only served to strengthen Zanu-PF's resolve to hold on to power.

According to Edward McMillan-Scott, “Over the past year, the world has undergone a series of major political upheavals. Across the Arab world, in authoritarian China and Russia, and more recently in democratic Turkey and Brazil, people have risen up in protest against their leaders. In the majority of cases, ruling governments have responded with violent crackdowns and by suppressing freedom of expression”. Freedom House's latest annual report found that there has been an overall decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide, as authoritarian regimes have stepped up their persecution of civil society groups, independent and online media, and the popular democratic movements which threaten their grip on power.

Zimbabwe has not been an exception to this rise in persecution of civil society groups. Many Zimbabweans are used to living with their fundamental rights repressed. Human Rights Defenders have particularly been the main targets. On 23 February 2012, Zimbabwe was cited by Frontline Defenders as being amongst a number of countries that have witnessed an increase in attacks on human rights defenders (HRDs) in their homes or offices and intimidation of HRDs by the judicial authorities. 2013 witnessed a similar trend on a more intensified scale. In 2013, on World Freedom Day, Media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated that Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe is among the seven worst 'press freedom predators' on the African continent.

However, unlike in countries such as Egypt, Zimbabweans have remained placid in the midst of suffering and several reasons can be given to explain this. The main reason is fear. The UK Supreme Court captures this state of fear in its country guidance decision on Zimbabwe in which Lord Hope states that, “One of the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes is their insistence on controlling people’s thoughts as well as their behaviour.” George Orwell captured the point brilliantly by his creation of the sinister “Thought Police” in his novel 1984. The idea “if you are not with us, you are against us” pervades the thinking of dictators. From their perspective, there is no real difference between neutrality and opposition.

In this regard, Zimbabweans avoid state persecution by engaging in mendacity and even by avoiding to publicly airing their views on the current Egyptian uprising. A couple of cases illustrate this. In 2011, during a public lecture in Zimbabwe activists showed video footage of the Arab Spring protests in Egypt. The police raided the lecture and arrested 45 people. Eventually charges were brought against six activists, who were convicted of inciting public violence in March and given community sentences.

In a separate Facebook subversion trial, a supporter of the MDC-T party, Vikas Mavhudzi, reportedly put a post on a public Facebook wall drawing parallels between the Arab Spring and the political situation in Zimbabwe. He was arrested and spent a month in jail. The prosecutor said the post was ‘an attempt to take over the government by unconstitutional means or usurping the functions of the government’. However, his trial eventually collapsed because the post had been deleted and could not be offered as evidence.

In light of the current political flux across the world including Zimbabwe, how should Europe shape its foreign policy especially on Zimbabwe? According to Edward McMillan-Scott (ibid), “A strong and coherent European voice on human rights has never been so important. Only by working together can EU countries fight against torture and repression, support civil society and political activists, promote universal values and encourage the transition towards democratic regimes based on the rule of law. And while there is a strong moral imperative to act, it is also firmly in European countries' own interest. A world in which more states respected the fundamental rights of their citizens would not only be more free; it would be more stable, prosperous and secure”.

According to McMillan-Scott, an effective human rights strategy will require greater coherence, stricter conditionality, and for actors such as the EU Special Representative on Human Rights to be given a stronger and more flexible mandate so that they are empowered to speak out where necessary.
He also suggests that:

  • National parliaments across Europe must also play a bigger role in pressuring their respective governments to take up human rights issues, and should develop closer links both with the European Parliament and with each other to push for a more coordinated EU approach.
  • For its part, the European Parliament should step up its game by placing human rights resolutions higher up the agenda, rather than on the Thursday afternoon sessions when all but a few dozen MEPs have already left.
  • EU must build a stronger partnership with the US Congress and take up individual human rights cases together.

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