Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Zimbabwe and China: A Toxic Legacy

A shipload of armaments for Zimbabwe was turned away from South Africa on Friday 18 April 2008, thanks to activist unions, an inquiring press and a strong human rights activist community.

The timing of this shipment leads to the obvious question: is this the reason for the delays in counting the votes in the now not so recent election? Was the government waiting for fresh stocks of ammunition before embarking on all-out war on its own people? 3-million AK47 bullets would go a long way in a country of 12-million.

This is not an isolated incident.

China is accused of complicity in genocide in other parts of Africa. For example, the Rwanda government imported sufficient machetes from China to give one to every third male member of the population. Then there's Darfur -- despite worldwide publicity of horrific crimes of violence, China remains the Sudan's biggest armaments supplier.

Throughout all this -- and protests about Tibet and human rights violations generally in China itself -- the continuing mantra has been "no interference in internal affairs". If you check out the Chinese human rights policy in detail, you will see it's very carefully fudged to allow interference where activities "endanger world peace and security", which means
colonialism, racism, foreign aggression and occupation, as well as apartheid, racial discrimination, genocide, slave trade and serious violation of human rights by international terrorist organizations.

How, I wonder, is supplying weapons in Darfur, Rwanda and now Zimbabwe justified in this light? "Genocide" is listed in the categories where interference is allowed. Some might argue that annexing Tibet and destroying its culture is "colonialism".

The saddest thing of all though about this whole debacle is the way South Africa has repositioned itself as fudging human rights in its policy to Zimbabwe. The armaments shipment was not stopped by an intervention of the government. On the contrary, there is evidence that the South African government was facilitating it, offering a government-owned logistics operation when others refused to handle the shipment. It was the ruling African National Congress which, in opposition, did the most to change the inviolability of "non-interference in internal affairs" by making human rights a limiting factor on what governments could do.

If the Chinese government can see no evil, it's sad but not surprising. If the South African government can neither see nor hear any evil, it's pathetic. You have to wonder what the whole anti-apartheid movement was actually about. It certainly has not resulted in the ANC perpetuating the legacy in international affairs that it fought for. Thanks to a vigilant press, an activist civil society and a strong union movement, South African has been saved from total disgrace. But it's hard to see how Thabo Mbeki (a leading promoter of the ANC in exile) can't leave office as a total failure. First there was the debacle of failing to deal with the HIV pandemic based on the remote possibility that the mainstream science was wrong, then there was backing incompetent ministers at all costs, now this -- the defense of a failed policy on Zimbabwe at all costs.

And China? I hope there will be a day not too far in the future when China will be a more open society, and its people will look back on its role in Africa with shame and embarrassment. But I am not holding my breath; the Belgians, for example, have battled to accept their role in the destruction of the Congo, including complicity in the murder of independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. And of course, for Chinese readers, there's the reluctance of the Japanese to admit their crimes in World War II.

Crimes against humanity are not crimes only against individuals, but crimes against us all: they violate the very concept of what it is to be human. Until this idea is widely accepted, we will have made no advance over the barbarity that was unleashed in Europe in 1914, when old-fashioned limits to the projection of power were overwhelmed by mechanized warfare. Until we develop limits not only on what we can do, but on what we should do, crimes will continue to be committed.

Follow Up

South Africa's main union federation, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), is playing an increasing role in regional pressure on Zimbabwe. A good source on news on that country is ZimOnline, e.g., here's a story about COSATU's role.

The arms shipment has subsequently been reported as delivered, allegedly with connivance of the South African government.

An update of this article has been published at Online Opinion on 24 June 2008. Sadly, very little had to be altered other than noting the withdrawal of the MDC from the presidential run-off, and integrating the paragraph preceding this one into the text.

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