OUTGOING Commonwealth chair,Australian premier John Howard, says the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Nigeria next week should take serious measures against Zimbabwe to saf
eguard the “Club’s” credibility.
Howard told a parliamentary Commonwealth Roundtable in Canberra yesterday that Chogm should act because President Robert Mugabe had failed to meet Commonwealth benchmarks to secure a lift of Harare’s suspension.
Zimbabwe was suspended in March last year for electoral fraud.
“At the meeting in Abuja the Commonwealth will have to determine a course of action to respond to the continued flagrant disregard of its principles by the government of Zimbabwe,” Howard said.
“This will be a significant test of the Commonwealth’s relevance and credibility. Conditions in Zimbabwe have continued to worsen both politically and economically.”
The Zimbabwe situation, he said, was steadily deteriorating and inching towards collapse.
“Human rights are routinely violated as President Mugabe’s regime seeks to silence all opposition. Freedom of expression is suppressed by violence,” Howard said.
“Freedom of the press to report objectively or criticise the government has been eliminated with restrictive regulations covering media operations.”
Howard said the economic situation was grim.
“Inflation is currently running at 525,8%. The cash economy has virtually halted due to an acute shortage of cash and foreign exchange.”
Howard said “agricultural production has disintegrated – in 1998 Zimbabwe had over five million head of cattle, this year there are only 250 000.”
“There is not enough fuel or spare parts to keep farm equipment operational and there are no funds to buy or import seed and fertiliser,” he said. “Some five and a half million people now require food aid. The healthcare system is on its knees.”
Australia, Howard said, has tried very hard to bring change in Zimbabwe.
“As Chairman-in-Office, I have regularly urged the Mugabe regime to return to Commonwealth principles – ironically those principles are known as the Harare Declaration, as they were drawn up in Zimbabwe’s capital in 1991,” he said.
“But President Mugabe’s regime continues to encourage systematic harassment and torture of the opposition, electoral malpractice and corrupted legal processes. It continues to resist the transparent, equitable and sustainable land reform programme its citizens so desperately need.”Howard went further: “President Mugabe’s regime is only in power because, through a campaign of violence and rorting (vote-rigging), it stole the presidential election in March 2002.”
He said Mugabe had dismally failed to deal with political reconciliation, the parlous state of the economy, food shortages, restoration of political stability, the rule of law and electoral reforms.
By contrast, Howard said Fiji and Pakistan, also suspended, have been addressing Commonwealth concerns.
“Zimbabwe’s record and attitude sadly is in direct contrast. President Mugabe refuses even to acknowledge the legitimacy of Commonwealth concerns,” he said. “Zimbabwe remains in serious and persistent breach of the Commonwealth’s basic democratic principles.
“Zimbabwe must demonstrate a fundamental change in attitude and approach before it regains its place in the Commonwealth,” Howard said.
“Re-admitting Zimbabwe without concrete progress towards meeting the Commonwealth’s benchmarks will not only undermine the organisation’s credibility, it is also plainly unfair to those countries that have taken the necessary steps to live up to Commonwealth values,” he said.
“Even worse it will set a dangerous precedent for other errant states, inhibiting the potential of the Commonwealth to be an effective influence for democracy and the rule of law.”