Commonwealth tells Zimbabwe it faces suspension

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The Commonwealth yesterday took the first step towards suspending Zimbabwe for abuses of human rights and the brutal seizure of mostly white-owned farms.

Ministers – including Jack Straw – began the process of excluding Harare – a sanction last enforced to punish Nigeria's military dictatorship for the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others.

It is the first time that the organisation of 54 countries has enshrined its deep concern about the situation in Zimbabwe in any formal action.

The decision was taken by the eight members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – the organisation's democracy watchdog – which met in London.

"The situation in Zimbabwe constitutes a serious and persistent violation of the Commonwealth's fundamental political values and the rule of law," CMAG said in its closing statement, and it itemised "continued violence, occupation of property, action against the freedom and independence of the media, and political intimidation".

Although the ministerial action group has repeatedly expressed concern at events in Zimbabwe, and organised a special meeting in Abuja last August which called for – among other things – a halt to the seizure of farms and a return to the rule of law, it had appeared reluctant to set the suspension process in train.

Suspension has usually been applied in the past in the event of military coups, where democracy has been unambiguously violated.

CMAG has the power to suspend a country's committee memberships, but not membership of the Commonwealth altogether – a power which rests with the twice-yearly Commonwealth Conference of heads of state and government. The suspension process could be started at the 30 January meeting of CMAG, or it could be held over to the Commonwealth Conference, which is to be held in Brisbane in March.

The Commonwealth Conference had been scheduled to be held last autumn, but was postponed after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States.

It was unclear yesterday how willing either CMAG or the Commonwealth conference would be actually to suspend Zimbabwe. Although Britain, Australia and Canada have called for firm action, some African countries have wanted to avoid confrontation with Harare.

However, the continued land seizures since the Abuja accord, the crackdown on the press, including the description of foreign reporters as "terrorists", and the targeting of opposition figures, have contributed to a hardening of the mood within the Commonwealth generally.

The sharp fall in the value of the South African rand has illustrated the wider regional impact of President Robert Mugabe's rule.

By next month, Zimbabwe will be under mounting pressure on several fronts. The day before the next CMAG meeting, EU ministers – who have generally taken a harder line on Zimbabwe than their Commonwealth counterparts – will be meeting to discuss their response to Zimbabwe's refusal to accept EU election monitors. They have already taken the first step which could lead to targeted sanctions against Harare and the suspension of some types of aid.

The Commonwealth Conference opens six weeks later, in March, and Zimbabwe must hold its presidential elections before the end of that month if it is not to be in violation of its constitution. Mr Mugabe is standing for re-election.

Short of suspending Zimbabwe, CMAG could warn of targeted sanctions on named senior officials if there is no let-up in the violence.