By Sunit Bagree
Since the November 2017 coup, progressive civil society organisations in the West have warned our leaders not to forget the terrible human rights records of Zimbabwe’s key political players.
We have urged our governments to work together and press Zimbabwe’s new leaders to take tangible actions to protect and empower the Zimbabwean people in line with the country’s international obligations.
Unfortunately, political elites in the West often fail to act upon principled arguments. In the case of Zimbabwe, the UK government provides the most spectacular example of this failure.
The former British Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing, was heavily criticised by opposition politicians and civil society activists both in Zimbabwe and in the UK for behaviour that strongly suggested she was supportive of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Prior to the coup, the UK government’s profound uneasiness regarding Grace Mugabe saw British officials reach out to her political opponents.
After the coup, in their desire to turn a hostile relationship into a friendly one, these officials ignored those who urged caution and scepticism regarding the new president’s promises.
The European Union (EU) and the United States government have also been guilty of ignoring some important calls for promoting justice.
There is a sense among many in European civil society that the EU lacks a clear direction when it comes to Zimbabwe.
An example of this is the EU’s decision in 2015 to resume aid to the country.
Another example is the lack of a robust EU response to the most recent human rights violations in Zimbabwe.
The US government is the most outspoken of all Western actors in relation to civil and political rights in Zimbabwe, but its position on debt is deeply unhelpful. US officials do not accept that some of Zimbabwe’s debt is odious.
There needs to be a comprehensive audit to identify where the country’s debts come from and who benefitted from loans.
The West is right to be worried about the growing influence of China and Russia in Zimbabwe as neither of these powers cares about human rights.
The West is also correct to be concerned about the failure of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and African Union (AU) to hold Zimbabwe’s leaders to account.
Western actors need to respond by prioritising human rights and working together more closely.
The West must call for an international investigation into all human rights violations this year; such an investigation must shed light on who gave the orders for the security forces to commit these violations.
All talks on re-engagement and normalising relations should be completely suspended until the findings of such an investigation are published and the government of Zimbabwe acts on them.
If the security forces continue to attack civilians, the EU (and the UK post-Brexit) should review sanctions on Zimbabwe.
It is also necessary for the West to increase support — in a strategic and critical manner — to those Zimbabwean politicians and civil society activists who are genuinely working to break down barriers and forge inclusive spaces for democratic transformation.
Western actors need to work as well as with those in Zanu PF who realise that change must come. If there is to be an inclusive national dialogue to address the current political and economic crisis, the West’s support for those Zimbabweans who are willing to put their country first could be vital.
In doing these things, the likes of the UK, EU and US can challenge Sadc and the AU to take the crisis in Zimbabwe more seriously. Of course, such an approach would require the West to better prepare for countering the inevitable propaganda.
When accused of orchestrating protests, Western actors should consistently ask for proof. When accused of being “imperialist”, Western actors should relentlessly make the case that championing human rights is fundamentally anti-imperialist.
Ultimately, the Zimbabwean people’s struggle for freedom will be won by Zimbabweans. But their struggle is more likely to succeed if Western actors significantly up their game on human rights.
* Sunit Bagree is Senior Campaigns Officer at Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement. DailyNews