Breen warns of deepening humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe

May 15th, 2008 - Pat Breen

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this important debate, to which good contributions have been made so far.  Good contributions were also made to the debate on Burma this morning.  As Deputy Burton said, Zimbabwe is a beautiful place.  I was in Zambia a few years ago and I went to the border with Zimbabwe where I saw at first hand what a beautiful place it is.  Unfortunately, it has been plundered by the Mugabe Government over the years.  My diocese of Killaloe under the late Bishop Harty had a mission in Zimbabwe and I knew a priest, Fr. Pat O’Neill, who served there for a number of years.  He told me the Zimbabweans were beautiful people and were easy to work with but were impoverished.

  Prior to the EU-Africa summit held in Lisbon last December, Fine Gael tabled a motion urging the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to signal the country’s protest at the events in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  Indeed, we highlighted the human rights abuses and warned the international community that we could no longer sit by and allow the situation to continue but, unfortunately, since then the situation in Zimbabwe has become more volatile.  As the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, rightly said, the media move on to other events even though what is happening in Zimbabwe continues.  That is unfortunate and we should continue to focus on what is happening there.

  The elections took place on 29 March and the entire election process was dogged by delays and recounts.  Several recounts were ordered to fill the 210-seat House of Assembly.  The results were eventually announced one month later.  The official results gave the opposition Movement for Democratic Change 105 seats and Zanu-PF 93 seats.  The presidential result gave the opposition leader a 47.9% to 42.1% victory over Mugabe but, unfortunately, that was not enough to avoid a run-off.  These delays and recounts have led to claims of vote rigging and electoral fraud. 

  There is much suspicion, distrust and accusation.  The MDC has frequently complained of intimidation and has said that at least 25 of its supporters have been killed since the first round of elections and hundreds have been forced from their homes in rural areas.  There were also claims of “ghost voters”, something with which we are not very familiar.

  In the middle of the election process, the International Transport Workers Federation was told of a ship laden with arms which it refused to unload.  That ship was heading for Zimbabwe but, thankfully, common sense prevailed, the ship was turned back and an immediate crisis was averted.  Nevertheless, reports of post-election violence are widespread.

  On Tuesday last, the Zimbabwean journalists association reporting on the visit of some western diplomats from the UK, the US, Japan and the Netherlands reported that many of the victims interviewed said they had been assaulted by the military and Zanu-PF supporters for contributing to their party’s defeat on 29 March.  At a Salvation Army Church, authorities said they were overwhelmed by the large number of people who had been injured as a result of political violence and skirmishes.  That shows the level of intimidation in Zimbabwe.

  We have seen pictures in the international press and in our national newspapers of the injuries caused to the ordinary people of Zimbabwe.  The chief medial officer reported that he had treated 24 people in the past week and that one had died. 

  After the tour of hospitals and a torture camp in Mashonaland Central, these diplomats said Zuna-PF was responsible for the violence.  According to the Zimbabwean association of doctors for human rights, 21 people have died and 900 have been tortured in post-election violence.  Incidentally, members of this western diplomatic group, including the UK Ambassador, Andrew Pocock, were detained when they tried to investigate the violence.  The situation is very sad.

  Reports claim Zanu-PF is clinging to power with the support of the police and the army.  Some human rights groups claim a slow motion coup is under way in Zimbabwe with security forces exerting even greater sway.  The efforts of independent monitors have been singled out by Mugabe’s Government with a number of foreign journalists and Zimbabwean civil society activists detained by police.

  What will happen next in Zimbabwe?  Both leaders must face one another in a new poll.  It remains to be seen whether this new poll be different from or fairer than the last one.  Unfortunately, there are no international observers.  The UN has not been invited to oversee the elections.  That shows that these elections will not be fair.

  There has been a clamp-down on opposition supporters and that will make it much more difficult for them to go out to vote again given that so many have been intimidated and injured post the election.  People are frightened and fear for their lives.  While the opposition leader will start as favourite, all things being equal, fear of violence will affect the outcome.

  On Tuesday last, the opposition leader met Lesotho’s Prime Minister in Maseru in an attempt to put pressure on South African summit leaders to demand that Harare stop what he calls a political campaign of violence. However, at the weekend he announced he would participate in the run-off against Mr. Mugabe, provided the vote was held, as the law requires, 21 days from the announcement on 2 May of the result of the first vote.  This is a brave move by the opposition leader, Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, given the fact he has almost been exiled since the election because of fears for his life.  The chairman of the electoral commission has announced that the 21-day period is a very ambitious target so the question of a run-off is up in the air.

  A deepening humanitarian crisis is looming in Zimbabwe, as has been said by many speakers.  The economy is collapsing and unemployment stands at 85%.  It has the highest rate of inflation in the world, at 160,000%, and political turmoil is crippling the country.  As the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Uachtarán na hÉireann, Mary Robinson, said, this vicious circle of human rights violations that leads to conflict, which in turn leads to more violence, must be broken.  It needs to be broken by the international community for the people of Zimbabwe.

  The Irish Government has been helpful in providing international aid for Zimbabwe.  In 2006 and 2007 it gave €17 million and already in 2008 a further €1.1 million has been disbursed, with additional assistance planned for the future.  Our contribution is channelled through UN agencies such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF, as well as local and international NGOs which are doing a great job.  The Government must use every available channel to exert pressure on south African leaders to send a team to Zimbabwe to investigate the violence.  The Minister for State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has a great interest in this area and before he became Minister of State he played an important role, as did my colleague Deputy Timmins.

  If Mr. Mugabe does not allow the international community to investigate this crisis maybe South Africa will have a better chance of convincing him and South African mediation is the best way forward.  If the run-off proceeds, independent electoral monitors must be allowed to oversee the election and the Minister must make this point forcefully to his EU counterparts.  The people of Zimbabwe made a powerful statement on 29 March and there is now an onus on the international community to respond rather than stand by and do nothing.