The Responsibility to Protect

For almost all of the 20th Century, a basic dictum of international diplomacy was “non interference in the internal affairs of other States”. Even today, Mugabe angrily denounces all attempts to even discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe at international gatherings as “interference in our internal affairs.” At the SADC summit last month he stormed out of that gathering and flew home 24 hours early when leaders insisted that the Zimbabwe situation be discussed in a closed session.

Today in Darfur the international community faces a fresh challenge – the Sudanese government is flatly refusing to allow more effective UN surveillance of the situation in Darfur and is continuing to try to subjugate the people of Darfur by means of armed force using both State resources and informal armed forces. The international media is still allowed into the Sudan and so we can see for ourselves the effects of this situation on the ordinary men and women of the western region of Sudan. We can see the refugee camps, the fresh graves; hear the stories of those whose lives and rights are being abused by a dictatorial Islamic regime.

In recent times the issue of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign States has come under scrutiny. People are questioning the dictate and saying that where a government is threatening the fundamental human and political rights of its people, the international community has the responsibility to act in solidarity with the poor and defenseless. So today we are seeing really tough talk at the UN about Darfur and we are also seeing more and more prominent people from all walks of life saying that the international community has the responsibility to interfere.

In southern Africa we have been there as well – both the Rhodesian and South African governments used the dictate to argue that outsiders had no right to interfere. But eventually, the gravity of the crisis and the threat to the stability of the region persuaded those with power to take action. In both cases the international community appointed a “point man” to take responsibility for coordinating and directing the resolution of the crisis. In both cases they were successful. Henry Kissenger was the point man on Rhodesia and Margaret Thatcher the point “man” for South Africa.

What happened after their intervention was critical, but it was their (often unsung) actions that actually broke the logjam and made all else possible. If you had told me that South Africa would go through the process that led to the 1994 elections without serious violence and upheaval – I would have said you were nuts. But it happened and the key element was a carefully planned and executed political action backed by the threat of the use of power. Such threats are only credible when they are real and can be backed up by action if needed.

Today it is 30 years since Henry Kissenger flew into South Africa and held talks with a team of Ministers led by Ian Smith at Union Buildings in Pretoria. He came with a plan agreed by key African leaders and the backing of the global community at the time. He arrived when Rhodesia was in the throes of an armed struggle with the armies of Zanla and Zipra who were demanding one-man one vote (democracy). 150 000 men were under arms and the ordinary population of the country was being brutalized by all sides. The economy was in dire straights and there was no end in sight for the conflict. There were fears the conflict might spread into South Africa itself. Smith was totally in charge and even the South Africans were wary of taking him on politically.

Kissenger persuaded the South Africans that there was no future for Rhodesia under Smith. That backing the Smith government was not only a waste of South African resources but was having a negative impact on the survival and prosperity of South Africa itself. He was well prepared and the US had used its considerable intelligence capacity to ensure that he could argue this case with some force and conviction.

Kissenger sympathized with Smith – recognised his courage and determination and even his love of the country he led. But he also understood that he was never going to win and that if the final defeat came any way other than through negotiation, it would be a disaster. He presented his plan to the Rhodesian team and after they had debated it amongst themselves for a while, they rejected it. At that point the President of South Africa came in and said to the Rhodesian delegation that if they walked out of that room without an agreement, he would cut off their essential supplies and all future support would cease. Smith went on to call it the “Great Betrayal” but in fact what those two foreign leaders did that day was to rescue the country from itself and open the way to a new beginning.

The Rhodesians flew home and Smith went on television 30 years ago on the 23rd September 1976 to say they had agreed to a transition to real democracy. It took 3 more years but when Zimbabwe was born on the 18th April 1980, Henry Kissenger was, in a very real sense, its father.

Today the international media are banned from Zimbabwe and unless someone has the courage and the equipment to film something clandestinely – the world cannot see what is happening here. That does not excuse leaders. They should not require pictures to make decisions on situations like Darfur and Zimbabwe. Unfortunately very often that is the case – but it should not be so. They know what is happening – they have other resources, reports, intelligence and their diplomats.

The crisis in Darfur is serious, but it does not compare to the situation in Zimbabwe where a criminal class is in power, is terrified of its past and is fighting to stay in control at any cost. The consequences are there for all to see – GDP down by half, exports by two thirds, life expectancy by half in a decade, elections a sham, the media totally controlled and all forms of opposition ruthlessly put down by armed force and violence. We are a threat to regional stability and prosperity; our economic and political refugees are drowning the social and economic systems of our neighbors. Our leadership is unrepentant – even of genocide and the mass destruction of homes and livelihoods. They are guilty of the theft of national assets and income on a scale that has not been seen in recent years in the rest of the world.

Like Burma and North Korea they have built up a military State that is able and willing to maintain itself on what remains and can continue to do so indefinitely. The only recourse of its beleaguered and embattled population is flight or a form of national “house arrest”.

The Zimbabwe situation is one that is wide open to international intervention. The failure by African leaders, the South African leadership in particular, demands that the international community itself takes a fresh look at what is going on and what can be done to get things back on track. Unlike Darfur, Iraq, Burma and North Korea – Zimbabwe is vulnerable to international action. It is a small country with limited resources – none of them really strategic, it is land locked and its neighbors hold the key to the survival of the regime.

This is a problem that can be fixed. For the sake of its people, the international community has an obligation to interfere. It does not require military intervention of any sort, just coordinated and concerted action by the leaders of democracies in Africa and abroad.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 2nd October 2006