Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Another explanation of Russia’s veto of the UN Zimbabwe sanctions resolution

Posted by CM on July 19, 2008

The US and British governments are still seething over China and Russia’s ‘double-veto’ of the UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on president Mugabe and his closest associates, and to impose an arms embargo on Zimbabwe.

Some Zimbabweans are also disappointed at what was seen as a reprimand that would have carried great moral and symbolic authority; as a statement of the apprehension of much of the world at events in  Zimbabwe. Others are glad the resolution failed because they saw it as a hypocritical ganging up on Zimbabwe by countries that are quite happy to look the other way at the actions of governments as repressive or more so than Mugabe’s.

British officials have reacted very testily to the suggestion that the resolution was ill-advised, and that it should not have been presented without its promoters being absolutely sure of support for it to pass. The argument is that it would have saved the US and Britain the loss of “face” of having a motion they pushed so hard for defeated. Part of the response to that has been effectively ” the sneaky Russians had suggested they would support the motion but then stabbed us in the back at the last minute.”

That still leaves open the question of why it was not obvious that the probability of at least a Chinese veto was very high from the beginning, for reasons of that government’s relations with Mugabe’s and China’s own less than stellar democratic credentials. The undiplomatic way that Brown & Company tried to blackmail countries by almost daring them to oppose the motion (ironically, very much Mugabe tactics!) could not have helped the pre-vote lobbying efforts to get unanimity. Official Britain seems to have a very hard time accepting that as influential as that country remains in world affairs, the days of it being able to hector other nations is long past, and that the tendency to do so rubs many of those nations the wrong way. When those nations are increasingly powerful ones like China and Russia, they delight in the opportunity to flex their muscles and defy those who have ruled the world unchallenged in recent times.

A legitimate question that must be asked is whether Zimbabwe’s mess can be considered a threat to international security, one of the grounds for the Security Council to force its way into a country’s governance. On that shaky legal basis alone the resolution had a low chance of passing. It would have set a troubling new precedent in how “threat to international security” is defined, probably ushering in a new era of interventions on rather dubious pretexts going beyond what the world has witnessed in Iraq, for instance.

Apart from all the other selfish reasons China and Russia had for vetoing the sanctions resolution, I can also see solid international law justifications for their actions. If the main goal of the sanctions were to send a moral message to Mugabe’s government and to the world, arguably the UN’s own rules would seem to suggest that a Security Council resolution was not the appropriate vehicle for doing so. It has always been countries like Britain and the US imposing their own interpretations of “international law” on the rest of the world. But in this case the contrary explanation of whether the threat to international security  requirement was met by the Zimbabwe crisis carried the day.

Now if the EU chooses to apply the same sanctions that Brown & Co. had wanted to be imposed by the UN, as Brown is pushing for, arguably they are on firmer ground. The EU does not have the UN’s narrow restrictions on taking sanctions actions on the basis of “threat to international security,” but can justify its actions with its own reasons.

Of course it is not difficult to understand why UN sanctions would carry far greater symbolic (and practical) “weight” than the same sanctions imposed by the EU. One could be explained as “the world” speaking to reprimand Mugabe, while EU sanctions would be dismissed by Mugabe as merely another manifestation of what he claims to be a Western conspiracy to remove him.

An indignant analyst writing on a blog devoted to Russian foreign policy issues titled his post Russia was right to resist Zimbabwe sanctions!

Have I been completely missing something or has everyone lost their minds regarding this whole Zimbabwe sanctions situation?

… now Britain and the US have been openly questioning Russia’s fitness to belong to the G8. Normally level-headed commentators have been feverishly proclaiming their disappointment in Russian collusion with dictators.

… the situation today in Zimbabwe is reminiscent of 1993/1996 Russia — violence to the opposition (Yeltsin’s bombing of the White House); massive voting fraud (1996 election); hyperinflation — or any number of contemporary Central Asian states. None of these have had sanctions imposed on them.

In the following rant, which reflects solely the ill-considered opinions of its author, allow me to introduce some reality into this moralistic, anthropomorphic hysteria:

1. The UN security council is a forum for international law and diplomacy, not a morality police. It is not the business of the members to tell other countries what political system they ought to choose.

2. Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe has indulged in political abuses but it has not killed, tortured or imprisoned any more people than has China, Morocco, Congo, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Nepal or [insert authoritarian developing country here].

3. The UN Security Council is not designed to impose sanctions on states that rig elections. The vast majority of countries in the world rig their elections; others, like practically every Gulf and Central Asian state, don’t even bother to hold elections. Many more others suffer from hyperinflation, violent repression of the opposition and economic collapse.

4. Sanctions almost never work anyway.

5. Countries aren’t people. They aren’t good or bad, and they don’t have feelings or morals. They are entities with interests. Condemning Russia for the Zimbabwe sanctions on grounds of morality is childish and dangerous.

One may not agree with all the author’s points, but they are legitimate matters for debate. They are also very useful reminders of how on a lot of issues which the Western world considers “clear cut,” there are many people from other parts of the world who view them through a different lens.

Zimbabwe is definitely in a mess, that much is sure. But it is a complicated mess with many shades of grey, not one as clearly black and white as it appears to some.

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