Gordon Brown used the world's top diplomatic table to accuse Robert Mugabe of trying to steal the election in Zimbabwe, increasing pressure on the regime and embarrassing the President's chief political protector, South Africa's Thabo Mbeki.
World leaders, gathered at the United Nations in New York yesterday, served notice to President Mbeki that they have lost patience with his repeated assertions that there remains "no crisis" in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Results of elections held there almost three weeks ago are still being withheld.
Britain and other Western countries used a special session of the Security Council, called by the South African leader who holds the chairmanship of the council, to call for the release of results that could spell an end to the 28-year rule of Mr Mugabe. They stopped just short of berating Mr Mbeki personally for his refusal to intervene directly.
Mr Mbeki's attempts to keep the subject of Zimbabwe off the agenda were roundly thwarted. First Mr Brown and then the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, signalled that the international community can no longer ignore the situation.
Mr Brown, at the start of a three-day visit to America, suggested that Mr Mugabe was trying to "steal" the 29 March election. "No one thinks, having seen the results of polling stations, that President Mugabe has won," he told the session, which was attended by presidents from several African states, including Somalia, Ivory Coast and Tanzania.
"A stolen election would not be a democratic election at all," he went on. "Let a single clear message go out from here in New York that we... stand solidly behind democracy and human rights for Zimbabwe."
Mr Ban said the credibility of democracy in Africa was at stake. The secretary general also ignored Mr Mbeki's attempts to keep Zimbabwe off the agenda. "The situation could deteriorate further with serious implications for the people of Zimbabwe," he said, adding: "The Zimbabwean authorities and the countries of the region have insisted that these methods are for the region to resolve. But the international community continues to watch and wait for decisive action. The credibility of the democratic process in Africa could be at stake here."
While little more than diplomatic theatre – there was no attempt by Britain or its allies to draft a resolution to condemn the Mugabe regime for fear it would almost certainly fail – the session served to underline the increasing isolation of Mr Mbeki.
In recent days he has come under pressure even from his own party to acknowledge that Zimbabwe is in deep crisis.
After the session, Mr Brown again spoke. "We don't have the presidential results published yet," he said. "What you have seen [at the UN] is the determination of the international community saying the results have got to be published. They've got to be transparent. Everything has got to be above board."
Mr Mbeki came to New York fresh from being chastised by Jacob Zuma, who won the leadership of the ruling African National Congress party last December. Signalling discord with Mr Mbeki over Zimbabwe, Mr Zuma said the region "cannot afford a deepening crisis in Zimbabwe. The situation is more worrying now given the reported violence that has erupted." He added. "The delay in the verification process and release of results increases anxiety each day."
If speakers at the UN, including Mr Brown, held back directly from criticising Mr Mbeki at the public session, it was for fear that he might dig his heels in deeper and it would therefore be counterproductive. "We are worried that if we attack Mbeki, he will become more stubborn than ever. He did that over Aids in Africa and we don't want that to happen on Zimbabwe," said one British source.
Mr Brown has privately urged African leaders to put pressure on Mr Mbeki behind the scenes. The Prime Minister held private talks with Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania and chairman of the African Union, to press Mr Mbeki to take a tougher stance. Mr Kikwete told the UN session that the regional organisation, the Southern African Development Community, wanted "to ensure the will of the people of Zimbabwe is respected". He said that this would be the spirit of meetings that would be held soon, and that the organisation needed to be supported.Reuse content