The limits of international action in Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

The window of hope in Zimbabwe is now very small indeed. There was never any prospect that Britain, with post-colonial responsibility but no power, could ever be part of the solution there rather than an exacerbation of the problem. The collapse of last week's talks in London was therefore no surprise. The failure of South Africa to put meaningful pressure on Robert Mugabe is disappointing, but again hardly unexpected.

In Zimbabwe itself, and in South Africa, there are few left now who have any illusions about the old tyrant. They know he is simply using the land reform issue to prop up his decaying power structure. They know he is using anti-white racism and driving investment away. That is why he could not win a majority for his referendum, and why he does not want to hold elections - not until he has driven his opponents out of the country or into submission. But Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, has not acted because the distribution of land in Zimbabwe is too unjust, the legacy of white colonialism too raw, and the instinct of black unity too great.

So now we have the paradox of white farmers emigrating from Zimbabwe to Mozambique, the former home of black African radicalism, in search of a better life. And no end in sight to Mugabe's tyranny.

It should be accepted that the limits of international politics have been reached for the moment. It is worth insisting, again and again, on the values of non-violence, of free and fair elections, and of impartial justice, but without the idealistic expectation that such concepts will influence the Mugabe regime.

It may be that the only restraints on Mugabe will be those of international law. The government of Zimbabwe could be made troublesome and difficult if farmers started to sue through the courts for their land back, and if exporters were prevented from shipping the products of expropriated land. And what if Mugabe's opponents were given the chance to find and put a lien on his substantial overseas assets, allegedly held in Switzerland?

The only argument against seizing the land of white farmers that is likely to have any purchase on Mugabe, and his gangs of so-called war veterans, is the pragmatic one that they will not gain by it. For the moment, then, it can only be hoped that the allergic reaction of international investors to the idea of usurping property rights without compensation will act as a brake on the otherwise inexorable slide of Zimbabwe into destitution and civil war.