The Commonwealth must stand firm for democracy

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The condemnation of the stolen election in Zimbabwe by European leaders in Barcelona is a necessary but not sufficient condition of Robert Mugabe's international isolation. The EU imposed limited sanctions on the Mugabe regime before the unfree and unfair election, and there is not much more pressure that it can bring to bear now that the rigged result has been declared.

Nor does the EU have primary responsibility for standing up for the democratic rights of the Zimbabwean people. That burden falls on the shoulders of Zimbabwe's neighbours in Africa, principally South Africa, and on the Commonwealth.

We reported yesterday that South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, was seeking behind the scenes to persuade Mr Mugabe to form a government of national unity with members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. On the face of it, that seems a flawed compromise, and the MDC would be wise to steer clear in the unlikely event of Mr Mugabe making the offer. It would effectively condone the stealing of elections by despots, provided they offer token posts in government to their opponents.

The only hope of effective pressure being brought to bear on Mr Mugabe, therefore, rests with the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is badly divided between its African and non-African members. The one consideration that should not sway those members who condemn Mr Mugabe is his denunciation of them as racist and colonialist. Of course, the values of democracy and civil rights are to some extent culturally specific, but the Commonwealth is founded on the assertion that some values are universal, and Mr Mugabe's campaign of intimidation and obstruction clearly contravened them.

As if to prove that point, the Mugabe government yesterday imposed new restrictions on journalists, banning foreign full-timers and requiring domestic journalists to register with a government panel.

The Commonwealth must suspend Zimbabwe from membership until Mr Mugabe has gone. If African members refuse to allow this, those members of the Commonwealth that reject Mr Mugabe's election, including Britain, will be justified in suspending themselves from the organisation until it adheres to its own principles. That may seem a drastic step, but the credibility of the organisation is at stake.