The 'Axis of the Unwelcome'
The 'Axis of the Unwelcome'
Op-Ed / Africa 5 minutes

The 'Axis of the Unwelcome'

More or less at the same time as President George W. Bush was announcing his list of countries belonging to an "Axis of Evil," his counterpart in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, was issuing his own "Axis of the Unwelcome." On it were EU members whose citizens could not go to the southern African country to monitor presidential elections to be held March 9 and 10.

The Bush list provoked violent protest in Tehran, anger in Baghdad and more of the usual weirdness in Pyongyang, as well as trans-Atlantic verbal hostility. Meanwhile the Mugabe list seemed at first to go unnoticed in Brussels.

Perhaps the traditional mild manners of most of the countries on Mr. Mugabe's "Axis of Unwelcome" list - Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Holland, Germany and Britain - played a role. It may be unrealistic to expect citizens in Stockholm to burn the Zimbabwean flag or Helsinki students to pour out in the streets screaming "Death to the Great Satan Mugabe."

At any rate, upon hearing who was welcome and who was not, the EU countries ignored Mr. Mugabe's wishes and sent an advance team of 30 observers led by Pierre Schori, the Swedish ambassador to the U.N. The diplomat headed the EU monitors' mission during the 2000 Zimbabwean parliamentary elections. Maybe it was hoped that this appointment would be accepted, since Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Schori knew each other 30 years ago, when the then-African freedom fighter was admired by young Swedish activists of the Social Democratic Party.

Tough luck. Last Saturday the affair became much too personal to handle, when after some back-and-forth the Mugabe regime refused to accredit Mr. Schori, branded him a "simple tourist" and finally expelled him.

There was no doubt what had to be done in Brussels. Chris Patten, the EU commissioner for external relations, said on BBC Radio Four on Jan. 28: "We've said to Mr. Mugabe and his colleagues, look, by Feb. 3 we want it to be clear that we can have an EU observation team in place for the elections, that the national and international media can cover them properly and we don't want to see any further increase in violence. Unless those conditions are met then we're sorry but we'll regard our present consultations with you as at an end and we'll move on to sanctions."

So on Feb.16, after Mr. Mugabe called the EU's bluff and had put Mr. Schori on a plane out of Harare, it was obvious that sanctions had to be imposed. And imposed they were: by the EU foreign ministers on Monday, with immediate effect.

Now these sanctions are not the classic economic ones, but are known as "smart sanctions." They include a travel ban to all EU countries on 20 top individuals (Mr. Mugabe heads the list, along with eight government ministers, including his notorious Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo); a freeze on their personal assets held in EU countries and a ban on EU export of arms and dual-use equipment that could be used for internal repression.

On the EU scale this may be called a "tough response" but about the only thing it might have saved was the crumbling credibility of the EU's foreign policy - it was much too late to make a difference for Zimbabwe's people. The sanctions are unlikely to "bite" now: the Zimbabwe nomenklatura is busy repressing the opposition at home and unlikely to need to travel. And of course there was enough notice given for even the laziest account holder to move his assets to a safer haven, or even to do some last minute shopping for shoes or instruments of repression.

More importantly, together with the sanctions came the decision to withdraw the whole EU observers' team, which according to Mr. Schori had been intimidated by acts of vandalism and undue surveillance by authorities. There would have been probably more of the same if the team had stayed. But by taking the decision so late in the game, the EU has made it impossible for other organizations (intergovernmental and nongovernmental) to put in motion any eventual contingency plans they may have.

Nevertheless, the monitoring of the Zimbabwean elections remains crucial. In spite of being harassed and having its activists killed, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, has decided to contest the elections and is even leading in the polls. But unless there is rigorous monitoring by sufficient local and international observers, Mr. Mugabe may easily rig the poll. He could of course steal the vote even under the very nose of the monitors, but at least it would not go unnoticed.

In an effort to derail the training of local monitors by international experts, the government has used a law that forbids foreign nongovernmental organizations from spending funds on electoral education. Meanwhile those who were trained by local experts may be barred too, if the regime brands them as working for antigovernment organizations.

Concerning the international monitoring, Mr. Mugabe has shown that he appreciates its importance, and this is precisely why he wants to pick and chose. Back in January he spelled out his own "Axis of Friends." Unsurprisingly those were all countries and organizations who have a stake in not criticizing him: the African Union (formerly known as Organization of African Unity), the 14-nation Southern African Development Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. Also invited onto the monitoring list are the Economic Community of West African States, and the Commonwealth - excluding, of course, Britain. From the U.S. only the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is welcome.

The international community cannot abandon the Zimbabwean people in this manner. It may be too late to make a real difference but everything has to be done to maximize the effect of any possible monitoring and observing.

The observers from the "Axis of Friends" must be told clearly that unless they denounce whatever irregularities they see, they will be treated as accomplices to the theft of votes (and any other crimes that the Mugabe regime may commit on the road to victory).

Likewise, there are some independent Europeans accredited by Harare to observe the elections, including six observers from Norway, which is not a member of the EU. They, too, must be aware how much is on their shoulders and how keen their monitoring ought to be.

Observers from other countries and organizations not yet on the "Axis of the Unwelcome" list should be sent by all intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations who can round up volunteers at short notice to go and discreetly observe the preparations for the election. Media organizations should send their journalists on tourist visas, because Mr. Mugabe is making accreditation of reporters almost impossible. Print journalists from South Africa were turned away this week, so were three Swedish reporters.

There are so many irregularities, so much harassment, that anyone can have a good view even without accreditation. Indeed keen observers may be sometimes better off not wearing a nametag. But time is running out.

Unofficial observers could witness continuous violence against the opposition. Just on Monday hundreds of government supporters attacked the Harvest House, where the MDC has its headquarters in Harare, while in Bulawayo police arrested David Coltart, a lawyer and member of parliament from the MDC, charging him with firing a gun in an urban area.

The new "tourists" may be at hand to witness the intimidation. According to MDC spokesman Learnmore Jongwe, since a new Public Order and Security Act was voted in the Parliament, 67 MDC rallies had either been disrupted or canceled.

The unofficial observers' presence may help to reduce the fear and thus boost the turnout - a sure way to better reflect the wish of the Zimbabwean people, many of whom live in fear for their safety. Such a group of covert monitors may not be what Mr. Mugabe calls a "formally accepted" team but neither can it be "formally accepted" that he gets away with stealing the election because he barred all witnesses from the scene of the crime.

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