Muted African Union response to Zim crisis

Hopes that African Union leaders would pressure Robert Mugabe to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the opposition took a blow today when they received him as “a hero” at the AU summit in Egypt.

Mugabe attended the AU summit after being hurriedly inaugurated on Sunday after a widely condemned election on Friday in which he was the only candidate.

Prior to the summit, democracy groups called for the African Union to act in a manner consistent with its mandate to promote “democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance”. Jennifer Windsor of Freedom House argued that the AU could “set a powerful precedent and send a clear message of hope to the people of Zimbabwe by isolating Mugabe and pushing for his swift exit from the country’s political arena.”

Some African leaders had called for the election to be postponed and for an end to the regime’s violence and intimidation. Speaking in Nairobi, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga (above) urged the AU to suspend Zimbabwe’s membership. But, while the AU accepts the election fell short of acceptable standards, other leaders have been notably quiet.

There is speculation that Mugabe will propose a government of national unity to the Mutambara faction within the Movement for Democratic Change in an effort to marginalize MDC leader Tsvangirai. The arrangement, in which the MDC would remain subordinate to the ruling Zanu-PF is reportedly favored by South Africa”s President Thabo Mbeki. “Zanu-PF and the MDC must enter into negotiations which will lead to the formation of a transitional government that can extricate Zimbabwe from its current political challenges,” South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement today.

Thokozani Khupe, MDC vice president, today called for a “transitional authority” based on the March 29 vote.”Zimbabwe is burning,” Khupe said, “It is important that the African leaders save it before it burns beyond recognition.”

Analysts suggest that economic collapse and the threat of intensified sanctions will force the regime to reach an accommodation with the MDC. In a 1987 essay in Foreign Affairs, Mugabe himself wrote of “the value of sanctions as a means of raising the cost” of misrule. But the hard-line security service hawks who took control of Mugabe’s campaign after his humiliating loss to Tsvangirai in March will resist any that deal does not include immunity from prosecution on human rights charges.

“The economy will force him to the negotiating table and so he has to convince the hardliners that ‘we will have to negotiate or perish’,” said Eldred Masunungure, a leading political analyst. “The economy will be Mugabe’s Achilles heel, he has little leg room to wriggle. He had hoped his election would bring legitimacy, that has not happened”.

South Africa joined with Russia in opposing a UN Security Council declaration that Zimbabwe’s run-off election illegitimate today in the face of South African opposition. The US and European members supported a UK-drafted statement that the results of today’s election “could have no credibility or legitimacy”.

Adoption of the text required unanimous approval by all 15 Security Council members, but South Africa, backed by Russia, opposed it. South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said that it was not the Security Council’s business to certify elections.

While promoting itself as an impartial mediator, Pretoria has consistently sided with Mugabe against the country’s democratic forces. Moeletsi Mbeki, president of the South African president, suggests that Mugabe and Mbeki share a deep hostility to the independent labor movement. The MDC’s Tsvangirai is a former trade union leader and Thabo Mbeki lost the leadership of the African National Congress to Jacob Zuma, who was supported by the Congress of South African Trade Unions. “It’s a class thing,” said Moeletsi Mbeki.

Nevertheless, it appears that Mbeki may have become frustrated with Mugabe. Newly-revealed documents show that he warned Mugabe that “to resort to anti-imperialist rhetoric will not solve the problems of Zimbabwe, but may compound them.”

World’s “greatest tool for promoting democracy”?

Never mind checking the sports scores. Wireless technology can help promote free expression and democracy, according to a report in the journal Science.

Providing wireless access isn’t easy where repressive regimes distrust open communication. But states have international obligations to respect citizens’ rights to communicate freely via any medium, says Agnès Callamard, executive director of Article XIX, a London-based freedom of expression group.

Some scientists are helping enhance the work of human rights organizations through wireless technologies. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Jonathan Adelstein insists wireless networks can spur economic development as well as digital inclusion. “Availability of broadband really furthers human rights,” Adelstein said. “This could become one of the greatest tools the world has ever seen in promoting democracy.”

Pact gives N. Korean ‘tyranny’ a pass on human rights

North Korea today destroyed a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear plant where it processed weapons-grade plutonium, in response to the US removing the communist regime from its terrorism blacklist. Kim Jong Il‘s secretive Stalinist regime yesterday submitted a dossier of information on its nuclear plants and materials, a condition of its disarmament accord with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

But human rights and democracy activists are disappointed with the terms of the deal. The implosion of the cooling tower at Yongbyon, is a staged publicity stunt on North Korea’s part, said Chuck Downs of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “North Korea gets very real benefits and in exchange we get promises.” Pyongyang will have access to international loans while the rest of the world can only hope that they will actually comply with their commitments.

The agreement is predicated on a flawed assumption, Downs suggests. “North Korea is not a normal country. It is a terrible tyranny.” The regime is probably the most egregious human rights abuser in the world, notorious for its gulag of prison camps, abductions of Japanese civilians and denial of the most elementary human rights.

East and Horn of Africa: defending human rights in failing states

Hassan Shire Sheikh

Few regions of the world are as inhospitable for human rights and democracy activists as the East and Horn of Africa, a region comprising more than its share of failed states. Hassan Shire Sheikh concedes as much, but he insists that for every challenge there are grass roots activists “ready to pick up the pieces and effect real change”.

Hassan is an architect of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, comprising groups from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia (and Somaliland), Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. The network exists to organize urgent actions when human rights defenders are threatened, as is frequently the case, with imprisonment, torture, exile or death. Over the longer term, the network wants to end the “culture of impunity” that the region’s leaders (including some of the world’s worst dictators) enjoy, he told human rights and democracy advocates, State Department personnel and Capitol Hill staffers at a Washington, DC, meeting jointly organized by the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House.

He cited groups like the Union of Somali Journalists as acting in defense of basic democratic and human rights in the most difficult circumstances, often at risk to their lives. Gunmen in southern Somalia, the world’s most dangerous failed state, recently murdered Nasteex Dahir Farah, 26, a local journalist and union activist.

The region’s regimes are also trying to suffocate independent civil society in more mundane ways, he noted. In Ethiopia, a draft NGO bill, extends state control over NGO registration by granting the government the power to deny or suspend licenses for vaguely defined reasons. The draft also deems organizations that derive more than 10% of their income from overseas to be foreign and thereby barred from working on issues of human rights, governance, democracy or conflict resolution.

“We can understand that the Ethiopian government would want to bring in legislation on NGOs to create a proper legal framework and more financial transparency,” a donor country official told Agence France Presse. “But the text in its current form would make it impossible for NGOs to function.” What’s more, as Hassan Shire Sheikh noted, the same criteria applied to the aid-dependant Ethiopian state would also make the government a foreign entity!

Beijing’s pre-Olympic crackdown targets dissidents

Dozens of journalists, dissidents and free-expression activists have been harassed, arrested and imprisoned in the run-up to the Olympics, monitors report. Meanwhile, Shanghai authorities have informed dissidents, petitioners and other “controlled” citizens that they are barred from leaving the city during the Olympics.

Reporters Without Borders has documented 24 cases of journalists, cyber-dissidents or free speech activists arrested or imprisoned since the start of the year, and reports that at least 80 foreign journalists have been harassed by the authorities, principally in Tibetan regions and Sichuan. “Instead of an opening, these games are being used, more than ever, as a pretext to arrest, harass and censor,” the press freedom group complained.

Since the sentencing of leading activist Hu Jia at the start of this year, at least 23 other journalists, writers and free speech activists have been arrested or imprisoned. Hu was also reportedly tortured with stress positions and sleep deprivation. “It is part of the logic of political systems that treat opposition as a crime that they must not only punish the opposition,” analysts note, “but also break its spirit.”

Security arrangements for the games, including the collection of biometric data allow the regime to “vastly increase its capacity for monitoring and privacy intrusion,” said Human Rights in China‘s Sharon Hom, addressing a book launch for China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges. World leaders attending the Olympics may be in for a surprise, the meeting heard. Protocol dictates that leaders are seated alphabetically which would mean US President George W. Bush bumping elbows with Cuba’s Raul Castro.

Despite the appearance of relative openness in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, the communist authorities continue to clampdown. Journalist Qi Chonghuai received a four-year sentence the day after the quake, while human rights blogger Huang Qi was arrested for reporting the arrest of a person who had written accounts of the quake and its aftermath.

The regime’s actions demonstrate its fear, in the run-up to the Olympics, that “dissent or protests could garner broader political support and threaten the party’s authority”, write Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. “Rather than basking in the admiration of the world, China is beset by internal protests and international condemnation,” they note. “The world is increasingly doubtful that Beijing will reform politically and become a responsible global actor.”

The continuing protests prompted by the quake have led the security services to increase their efforts to intimidate human rights and other activists likely to exploit China’s enhanced visibility – and the foreign media presence – before or during the Olympics.  The authorities’ response appears to increase the prospects of what activist Minky Worden called a worst-case scenario at the Olympics itself – an “an overreaction to the entirely predictable protests that will happen and a crackdown on reporters trying to do their jobs.”

As a recent study demonstrates, “the surface diversity of the Chinese media hides the guiding hand” of [the communist party's] Central Propaganda Department, funded partly by a tax on enterprises ranging from bookstores to karaoke bars, golf courses, and bowling alleys. The regime’s media management and manipulation is one of the developments since 1989, notes analyst John Lee, that have enhanced the communist party’s ability to retain power. ["I]nstitutions are being built to keep the CCP in power rather than to serve as the future platform for democratization,” he argues.

“In order to strengthen public order during the Olympics and ensure the Games go smoothly,” Shanghai authorities issued a statement restricting the travel of “controlled” people from April 1 to Oct. 31. The rules also demand that citizens “Do not express any political opinion to foreign reporters” and “Do not distort the truth, intentionally spread rumors or use other methods to whip up and disturb social order“.