Threat to cut Mugabe's aid is on the cards

Published Feb 21, 2001

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By Stephen Castle

Brussels - Europe is to take the unprecedented step of delivering a final warning to Zimbabwe about its human rights record in a move which could result in the ending of a multimillion-rand aid package.

The action reflects growing international concern about the intimidation of the judiciary, harassment of independent media and last week's expulsion of foreign journalists.

Sweden, which holds the European Union presidency, has already halved its R165-million annual bilateral aid budget to Harare amid deteriorating diplomatic relations.

Now, the Swedes are planning to take the lead in confronting the Zimbabwean authorities under the terms of a new treaty that governs the relations between the EU and developing countries.

A meeting of officials in Brussels on Thursday was expected to finalise the details of how the EU would force a new "dialogue" with Harare about its abuse of human rights.

European ambassadors in Harare were expected to challenge the Zimbabwean government under article 8 of the Cotonou Agreement (which succeeded the Lome Convention). This is the final step before considering an end to European aid under article 96 of the same text.

Because the treaty is new, the article 8 procedure has not been used before, and officials are still unsure whether it will be invoked formally or whether they will seek dialogue "in the spirit" of the article

But one senior diplomat described the action as "really the last attempt" to rein in the regime of President Robert Mugabe.

"We are in a very critical phase and time is of the essence," he added.

Another official argued that this was "the last opportunity to avoid going to article 96", which would almost certainly lead to a suspension of Europe's aid to Harare.

Technically, the Zimbabweans are eligible for a total of about R1-billion in aid and trade concessions from the EU and the European Development Fund this year, although the vast majority of that cash has not yet been committed.

Sweden takes a strong line on human rights, and its decision to cut aid was greeted with resentment by the Zimbabwean government.

State-owned newspapers suggested that the Swedish ambassador might be expelled, although no formal protest was made.

Referring to the recent expulsions of foreign journalists, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change, has argued that the government "is preparing ground for an early presidential election and therefore they are creating conditions of isolation of the international community to know what's happening here".

Meanwhile, Sapa-AFP reports that British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on Wednesday announced that the Commonwealth would send a fact-finding team to Zimbabwe to investigate human rights abuses there.

Cook said the move was agreed in a conversation with Commonwealth secretary-general Don McKinnon.

The Commonwealth delegation will report back to a meeting of ministers scheduled to take place in London on March 19, said Cook.

Reuters reports that the Zimbabwean government summoned a British diplomat to complain that he had impeded police work when he helped Joseph Winter, a correspondent for the BBC who was expelled last weekend.

"I was summoned and we stated our position," said Roger Hazelwood, first secretary to the British High Commission in Harare.

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