A tragedy in Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe is a disaster for Zimbabwe. In his 28 years in power he has reduced a former thriving British colony to a political and economic hell. He rules by massacre, torture, and intimidation. He shamelessly steals the elections he still allows. No wonder he boasts that only God can remove him from power.

The once-prosperous Zimbabwean economy is in meltdown, with prices doubling roughly once a week, GDP shrinking at a rate of 10 per cent a year, most farms abandoned, millions living off food aid from abroad, and the few remaining commercial enterprises subject to illegal or pseudo-legal confiscations. Life expectancy which was still 62 in 1990, is plummeting to the mid 20s, and more than 2 million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa, their presence there causing riots in which at least 60 were killed and scores wounded or raped.

In short, Zimbabwe is a classic example of a ‘failed’ state. But what is to be done about it, or should anything be done? Predictably, the Great Powers are divided. On 11 July, Britain sponsored a UN Security Council resolution to impose financial and travel sanctions on Mugabe and thirteen of his top henchmen, to appoint a UN mediator, and to embargo arms deliveries. The resolution won nine votes, with five against, but was not adopted because Russia and China vetoed it.

The British were especially affronted by the Russian veto, because at last week’s G8 meeting in Scotland, Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown thought he had persuaded Russia’s President Medvedev to back the Security Council resolution. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband called Russia’s veto ‘incomprehensible’. An editorial in London’s Daily Telegraph argued that the Russian and Chinese veto was not ‘incomprehensible’ but ‘only too understandable, for it derives from the ruthless pursuit of self-interest that has characterized the foreign policies of these two states’. A popular view in London is that Medvedev did agree to support the British-sponsored resolution, but was then told by Putin to back off.

Deputy Head of Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Kislyak, denies that ‘support of engagement of the Security Council’ was ever promised. In Russia’s view ‘the main way out of the situation is to rely on support of the neighbouring nations [in Africa]’. Igor Tass, 14 July 16.39 Moscow Time.

Russia’s ‘betrayal’ is another blow to Anglo-Russian relations, already reeling from the dispute over Litvinenko-Lugovoi, the closure of British Council Offices, and TNK-BP. But there is a much more substantial issue at stake. This concerns the UN’s right to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state. The Russians favour a ‘strict’ interpretation of the UN Charter. As Kislyak put it: ‘The Security Council of the UN has a very specific function –to resolve problems that create threats to international peace and security…Zimbabwe does not create any [such] threats’. Against this is the ‘broad’ interpretation proposed by the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in its report of 7 December 2004, that the UN has a duty to ‘protect the innocent’. ‘Any event or process’ states the Panel’s report ‘that leads to large-scale death or lessening of life chances…is a threat to international security’.

The world, as we can see, is poised between two opposed doctrines of international relations. The compromise to go for is to accept the Russian-Chinese interpretation of the UN Charter, subject to an exception for the case of ‘genocide’, properly defined. In deciding that self-government was morally better than good government, western liberals condemned millions to decades of misrule. They cannot, now, claim the right to intervene to restore what they threw away. This unfortunately means that ‘failed’ states like Zimbabwe will continue to suffer from bad government, until their own people, or their neighbours, decide to end it.