Global Policy Forum

How Come Zimbabwe and Tibet Get All the Attention?


By Seumas Milne

April 17, 2008

If a government wants to abuse human rights and rig elections, it needs to have the support of - or be - the western powers.

There is no question that the struggle over land and power in Zimbabwe has brought the country to a grim pass. Nearly a decade after the takeover of white-owned farms and the rupture with the west, economic breakdown, hyperinflation, sanctions and Aids have taken a heavy toll. With the expectation now that a second round of elections, mired in claims of fraud, may after all keep President Mugabe in power, the prospect must be of continued economic punishment and crisis.

On a different scale, there's also no doubt that in Tibet - the other central international focus of western concern in the past month - deep-seated popular discontent fuelled last month's anti-government protests and attacks on Han Chinese, which were met with a violent crackdown by the Chinese authorities. Certainly, given the intensity of the US and European response, from chancellors and foreign ministers to Hollywood stars and blanket media coverage, you'd be left in little doubt that these two confrontations were the most serious facing their continents, if not the world.

The US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said as much this week when he declared Zimbabwe the "most important and urgent issue" in Africa. Gordon Brown and George Bush both denounced the delay in releasing election results, the prime minister declaring that the "international community's patience with the regime is wearing thin". The British media have long since largely abandoned any attempt at impartiality in its reporting of Zimbabwe, the common assumption being that Mugabe is a murderous dictator at the head of a uniquely wicked regime.

China's growing economic muscle means western leaders prefer to tread more carefully around its human rights record, but Angela Merkel and the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, were not shy about steaming in, along with the US presidential candidates and the House of Representatives, which demanded unconditional talks with the exiled Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, any official restraint was more than made up for by a string of Dalai Lama-dazzled celebs from Richard Gere to Ab Fab's Joanna Lumley, who proudly recalled that her father had once helped Tibet against China on behalf of the British Raj.

But, on the basis of the scale of violence, repression and election rigging alone, you would be hard put to explain why these conflicts have been singled out for such special attention. In the violence surrounding Zimbabwe's elections, two people are currently reported to have died; in Tibet, numbers estimated to have been killed by protesters and Chinese forces range from 22 to 140. By contrast, in Somalia, where US-backed Ethiopian and Somali troops are fighting forces loyal to the ousted government, several thousand have been killed since the beginning of the year and half the population of the capital, Mogadishu, has been forced to flee the city in what UN officials describe as Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

When it comes to rigging elections, countries like Jordan and Egypt have been happy to oblige in recent months - in the Egyptian case, jailing hundreds of opposition activists into the bargain - and almost nobody in the west has batted an eyelid. In Saudi Arabia there are no national elections at all, let alone the opposition MPs and newspapers that exist in Zimbabwe. In Africa, Togo has been a more flagrant rigger, while in Cameroon last week the president was given the job for life. And when it comes to separatist and independence movements, the Turkish Kurds have faced far more violence and a tighter cultural clampdown than the Tibetans.

The crucial difference, of course, and the reason why these conflicts and violations don't get the deluxe media and political treatment offered to the Zimbabwean opposition or Tibetan separatists is that the governments involved are all backed by the west, compounded in the Zimbabwean case by a transparently racist agenda. But it's not just an issue of hypocrisy and double standards, egregious though they are. It's also that British and US involvement and interference have been crucial to both the Zimbabwean and Tibetan conflicts.

That's most obviously true in Zimbabwe, which was not just a British colony, but where Britain refused to act against a white racist coup, triggering a bloody 15-year liberation war, and then imposed racial parliamentary quotas and a 10-year moratorium on land reform at independence. The subsequent failure by Britain and the US to finance land buyouts as expected, along with the impact of IMF programmes, laid the ground for the current impasse.

As for Tibet, Britain's role in the former serf-based system (helpfully recalled by Lumley) was assumed after the communist takeover by the CIA, which bankrolled the Dalai Lama's operations for many years. Such arrangements have in recent years passed to other US agencies and western NGOs, as with the Zimbabwean opposition. And even if there is no prospect of Tibetan independence, for a US administration that has designated China as the main threat to its global dominance, its minorities are still a stick that can be used to poke the dragon.

What has made human rights edicts by the US and Britain since the launch of the "war on terror" even more preposterous is that not only are they themselves supporting governments with similar or worse records, but they are directly responsible for these outrages themselves: from illegal invasions and occupations to large-scale killing and torture - along with phoney elections - in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN estimates that more than 700 people were killed in the recent US and British-backed attacks on the Mahdi army in Iraq - a central motive for which was to stop them taking part in elections.

The current focus on China is of course linked to the Olympics, and Britain must face the likelihood of large-scale protests over its own record in 2012. Meanwhile, the best chance both of settling the Zimbabwean crisis and of meeting Tibetan aspirations is without the interference of western powers, which would do better improving the human rights records of their allies and themselves. The days of colonial dictat are over and where attempts are made to revive them, they will be resisted. China is now an emerging global power - and, as the Zimbabwean ambassador to the UN said yesterday, Zimbabwe "is no longer a British colony".

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