US and Europe allow 'banned' Zimbabwe officials to visit

Sanctions, human rights violations are waived, for now, so that Zimbabwe's power-sharing government can make some progress.

Zimbabwe's prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, has some unusual participants in his ongoing tour of Western donor nations. They are members of President Robert Mugabe's inner circle, people who have been restricted from traveling to Europe because of their connection to a regime with a record of severe human rights violations.

The fact that two Mugabe cronies – Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengengi – have been granted visas to travel to Europe is a significant departure from the European Union's past travel restrictions for senior Mugabe officials. This waiver could be the beginning of a reengagement with the Mugabe government, and an attempt to give the fragile coalition government of Mugabe and Tsvangirai's parties a chance to succeed.

"I think the EU is trying to be pragmatic," says Ozias Tungwarara, a Zimbabwe analyst at the Open Society Institute in Johannesburg. "They want to see democratic transition in Zimbabwe, and they are engaging with the unity government despite its shortcomings and despite the misgivings of pro-democracy forces in Zimbabwe. What we are beginning to see is that for the moment, the government of national unity is the group we have to work with."

Obama easing up on Zimbabwe, too

Europe's uneasy detente goes hand in hand with the Obama administration's own tentative opening to the Zimbabwean coalition government. Like Europe, President Obama realizes that the only way to strengthen the chances of democracy in Zimbabwe is to give its strongest proponents – Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – a chance to govern and some room to breathe.

The US, too, has targeted sanctions against high-level members of President Mugabe's party (ZANU-PF) but it relaxed those somewhat last week to allow ZANU-PF loyalists to accompany Tsvangirai to his White House meeting. When the June 12 meeting commenced, however, all ZANU-PF members were sitting out in the hall.

"Any observer of southern Africa will see that despite the promises of President Mugabe, there has really been no great improvement in human rights, and farm invasions are still going on," says Raymond Louw, editor of the Southern Africa Report in Johannesburg. But the trickle of aid that Tsvangirai will bring home, and the widespread respect that he will be shown by Western donors will drive home a message to Mugabe's loyalists (both in Tsvangirai's entourage and at home in Harare) that no improvement can occur in Zimbabwe unless there is a dramatic improvement in the way the Zimbabwean government operates and treats its citizens, Mr. Louw says.

"The EU, rather than sticking with its approach of working with Mugabe or not working with Mugabe, is trying to explore other modalities," says Mr. Tungwarara. "They realize that trying to work outside the power structure that exists on the ground, that is not going to enhance the chance of democratic transition in Zimbabwe."

What about human rights?

While the EU and the US seem to be edging toward engagement with the ZImbabwean government, human rights activists warn that the government still has far to go before it can be called "democratic."

"The government must give as much attention to securing human rights reforms as they are to seeking economic resources," said Irene Khan, Amnesty International secretary-general, concluding a six-day tour of Zimbabwe. "There seems to be no sense of real urgency to bring about human rights changes on the part of some government leaders. Words have not been followed by effective action."

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