Zimbabwe suspension rejected by ministers

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A concerted effort by Britain to have Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth for human rights and other violations came to nothing yesterday after Commonwealth ministers failed to back the demand.

After a day-long meeting, the ministers adopted a series of strongly worded condemnations of Zimbabwean government policy, including the recent security crackdown, but they were deadlocked on the question of suspension.

Diplomatic sources said that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was split, four to four. Backing Britain were Australia, Canada and Barbados, with Botswana, which chaired the meeting, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Malaysia opposing.

CMAG requires a consensus for all its decisions. The Australian Foreign Minister, Alex Downer, said that Australia would now consider imposing targeted sanctions on its own.

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who had been increasingly vocal in support of suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in recent weeks, admitted disappointment, saying the meeting had "achieved less than we hoped, but more than we expected". He stressed that the meeting had laid down "most concrete benchmarks by which the Zimbabwe elections are able to take place to make them as free and fair as possible".

In Harare yesterday, the government arrested three Zimbabwean protesters who joined a demonstration outside parliament to oppose the adoption of a media bill that would silence the free press. Debate on the controversial bill was postponed again.

The concluding statement from the London meeting contained an appeal to Zimbabwe to end violence and intimidation, to allow all parties to campaign freely for elections, and to allow the people to make an informed choice through full access to media information. The elections are set for March 9 and 10, four days after the end of a Commonwealth summit to be held in Australia.

The immediate test of Zimbabwe's intentions will be in its reception of EU election observers, the first of whom are due to leave for Harare this weekend. The EU agreed this week to invoke "smart sanctions" on Zimbabwe's leaders if the government of President Robert Mugabe went back on a last-minute undertaking to allow EU observers as long as they did not include Britons.

Commonwealth ministers were unanimous yesterday in saying publicly that such conditions were unacceptable, but they made plain unofficially that they would probably not invite confrontation on the issue.

The group of ministers comprising the CMAG will meet next in Australia on the eve of the Commonwealth summit, but there are no expectations that this meeting will come any closer to calling for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.