Hostage nations

In our age of increasingly open markets and borders, is it possible for some regimes to brutalize their populations with impunity? Two current examples show how complicated the problem is and underline the need to find a solution. In Zimbabwe, a regime delirious with arrogance and paranoia is holding the whole country hostage, refusing to accept the result of a March vote that President Robert Mugabe lost after being in power for 28 years. Speaking of the second round of elections, which the government insists on as a way to skirt the issue of its defeat, a member of the ruling party’s Politburo made clear that the elections will not end Mugabe’s rule. «We’re giving the people of Zimbabwe another opportunity to mend their ways, to vote properly,» the Politburo member told a journalist working with The New York Times. «This is their last chance.» And what if Mugabe again loses? «Prepare to be a war correspondent,» he told the journalist. The ZANU-PF party, which led the country to independence and majority rule has decided not to play by democracy’s rules. The war against white minority rule in Rhodesia, a relic of the British Empire, was carried out with the slogan: «One man, one vote» (to which cynics had added «once»). Many other countries did fall into the hands of dictators, who looted natural riches and undermined their people’s futures, but Zimbabwe (as Rhodesia was renamed) was a success story – until Mugabe’s rule started to be threatened at the ballot box. In 2000, he forced thousands of white farmers off their lands and gave the farms to political cronies, who let them fall into ruin. From a major exporter of food, Zimbabwe is now suffering acute shortages and many are fleeing to neighboring countries. On Friday, it was announced that the second round of elections will be held on June 27, which allows Mugabe’s supporters and the security machinery to terrorize the population and kill opponents for another six weeks. The country is collapsing, the population is starving and frightened, but no one can do anything: Zimbabwe is an independent, sovereign country. That’s why, 28 years after his victory, Mugabe is still using the language of war to paint his rivals as colonial lackeys and traitors to the national cause. And the leaders of neighboring nations appear content to stand by and be silent witnesses to the disaster, as long as they’re not tainted as allies of the former colonialists. In Myanmar – the former Burma, which also was a British colony – a clique of xenophobe generals has been running the country for the past 46 years. Their brutal self-interest was highlighted in the clearest way by the cyclone which ravaged the country on May 1. The authorities put the death toll at about 78,000 but international organizations like the Red Cross are afraid that up to 2.5 million people are directly threatened by the lack of food and shelter. But the junta will not allow foreign aid agencies into the country to help the population, in case this is seen as an admission of the dictatorship’s incompetence. As in Zimbabwe, the country’s rulers portray themselves as patriots and their opponents as traitors. Here too the language is perverted in order to overturn morals, to confuse things, so that the leaders can achieve the opposite of what they preach: They speak of patriotism when they brutalize their own people, they see others as traitors when they are their peoples’ worst enemies. For centuries, the inviolability of national sovereignty has not been questioned (except in cases of war). The breakup of the former Yugoslavia introduced the concept of the international community’s intervening to stop one part of the population from wiping out another. But the impasse over Kosovo and the unpredictable war in Iraq have undermined the concept that «good intentions» are always good, or wise or welcomed by those whom they are intended to help. And who is to determine when it is right to invade a country that has not declared war against another? The debate on the issue, which is currently being touched on superficially in the United States and Europe, cannot overlook the fact that these countries have lost much of their credibility and have to deal with the heavy heritage of having been colonial powers. And while the West lacks the necessary credibility and will, while unscrupulous rulers feel that they have nothing to fear from the international community, the hostage populations are twice victims of a defunct colonialism.