Will Bashir's visit hamper Zimbabwe's pleas for aid?

As Zimbabwe's Prime Minister embarks for Europe and the US to ask for more aid, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir – who is wanted for war crimes – was hosted by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir (r.) delivers his speech during the Comesa summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Monday, June, 8. Zimbabwe is hosting the 13th Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa in the resort town.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's job has just gotten harder. Just as he hits the road on a three-week tour to convince rich Western nations to end their sanctions against Zimbabwe and to send more aid money, Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, is back home in Harare, reminding the world that he doesn't pay attention to their rules.

At a regional summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) held this week in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, Mr. Mugabe has held meetings with, among others, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting president to ever face an arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Since March, Mr. Bashir has been under an international arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. But this arrest warrant has not stopped Bashir from traveling in the Middle East and Africa, from Qatar in the Persian Gulf, to Egypt and Libya, and now to Zimbabwe.

"[Mugabe] loves thumbing his nose at the international community; he is so good at it," says John Prendergast, co-chair of the Enough Project, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on issues of genocide. "Mugabe couldn't care less about Bashir. He uses him to make a point that Western institutions are irrelevant in his Africa."

Bad timing?

Mugabe is, of course, famous for his contentious relations with the West. But at a time when Zimbabwe is appealing for some $10 billion in development relief from rich donor nations, it seems a curious decision to try to put those same donor nations in their place. The biggest Western donor of the bunch, the US, is currently debating lifting sanctions against Zimbabwe's new coalition government, which – for the first time in two decades – is forcing Mugabe and his party to share power with the opposition. Yet many American experts, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, say that the US should wait for Mugabe to leave before opening up the taps for aid.

At present, the US can only give humanitarian aid, because of US sanctions against Mugabe's regime.

To date, Zimbabwe has managed to secure $11.3 million in humanitarian relief from the European Commission, just 10 percent of the $1 billion it is requesting this year. Mr. Tsvangirai – once Mugabe's chief rival as opposition leader, and now a coalition partner in Mugabe's government – is expected to request up to $700 million from the US government when he meets with President Obama this month.

Zimbabwe's neighbors have already given the cash-strapped, inflation-ridden country up to $400 million in loans, through the COMESA that Mugabe now chairs, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has mediated political crises between Mugabe and his opponents.

Western clout doesn't penetrate Mugabe's Zimbabwe

By inviting Bashir to a summit in Harare, Zimbabwe is not breaking any rules. Neither Sudan nor Zimbabwe are one of the 108 signatories of the Rome Statute, which was created by the ICC, and thus Zimbabwe is not obligated to hand Bashir over to the ICC in The Hague. In addition, Bashir enjoys a certain amount of immunity as a head of state, acting in an international forum for his country's interests.

But while few experts believe the West will punish Zimbabwe for the Bashir visit, Mugabe's message will ring clear nonetheless.

"Western policy has failed to make any real impact in changing the behavior of the regime in Zimbabwe," says Godfrey Musila, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (Pretoria). "[Tsvangirai] is going to Europe and the US to make the case that at the end of the day, it is ordinary Zimbabweans who are suffering, and they need relief."

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