In recent times the United Nations has seemed a sclerotic bureaucracy mired in corruption and pointlessness. But now President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has presented U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with a golden opportunity to reestablish the reputation of the organization. Mugabe has invited Annan to visit. He should go, before it is too late. Civil war is becoming more likely, and increasingly so, as the opposition party collapses and hope of a political solution dissolves.
Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina, or "clean up the filth," largely involves clearing informal settlements with bulldozers and driving out residents with the clothes on their backs and the possessions they can carry. At least 700,000 people have been made homeless and many more are affected by loss of livelihood. Refugees are further plagued by HIV and other infections.
Churches and charities have been aggressively discouraged by the government from offering aid and shelter. The opposition party has been similarly ineffectual, although it must be said that they operate under horrific conditions. Six of 57 members of Parliament of the opposing Movement for Democratic Change have been murdered or have died from the effects of torture by the police and army in the past few years. But the MDC is being destroyed by an internal power struggle, which has escalated since the clearance campaign. The party's leader, Morgan Tsvangirai finds his position in jeopardy. A variety of sources say that his senior spokesman, Welshman Ncube, is planning to oust the leader and seize control of the party -- a charge Ncube has denied.
MDC member Frank Chamunorwa was attacked by thugs from his own party. The Daily Telegraph's David Blair spoke with Chamunorwa: "I have never been so dejected in my life because my own party perpetrated atrocities on me," said Chamunorwa, 55. He is suspected of plotting against Tsvangirai. What makes Chamunorwa especially bitter is that he helped found the MDC six years ago and was then almost murdered by the ruling Zanu PF party. Chamunorwa maintains that there is no coup planned. "Morgan has our mandate, more than half the population want him to rule but his ineptitude and indecision may cost him and Zimbabwe dearly," he said.
The assault on Chamunorwa was only one of many. The Daily Telegraph reports that other MDC thugs tried to murder Peter Guhu, a party official, who was forced to flee to South Africa after suffering serious injuries. Another member, Diamond Karanda, 31, was beaten up inside the MDC's headquarters in Harare on June 16. He was dragged into the boardroom and assaulted so badly that he still cannot walk properly. Tsvangirai responded by expelling 20 members.
As the country collapses the MDC is paralyzed by violent factional rivalry but brave efforts are still being made. MDC legal affairs spokesman, David Coltart is in Australia trying to raise the possibility that Zimbabwe will be charged with "crimes against humanity." "I believe [the Mugabe regime] violates article 7 of the Treaty of Rome, the statute that set up the International Criminal Court, which defines the forcible transfer of a population as a crime against humanity," says Coltart. But while Coltart does his best to get Australia and New Zealand to push for an ICC indictment, he knows he may not have a party to return to (nor is it certain that he can return to Zimbabwe, given that the national airline has run out of fuel and is, according to sources, apparently not able to do routine maintenance on its few remaining planes, given lack of spare parts). It is also possible that Coltart will be attacked by his own party when he returns home.
Coltart said the party "appears to be intent on tearing up everything we have worked so hard to build up over the last few, very difficult years." He added that Tsvangirai's expulsion of 20 junior members was an inadequate response to the violence. "I cannot believe that the youths involved in these despicable acts acted independently. It is common cause that they were unemployed and it is equally clear that they had access to substantial funding," said Coltart. "The instructions to act must have come from people within the party as no one else would have the detailed knowledge the youths had access to. In expelling the youths and relatively low-ranking members of the security team we have only dealt with the symptoms of the problem, not its root cause."
Coltart claimed that Tsvangirai had conducted an "inadequate investigation" into the violence and breached the MDC's rulebook by failing to establish a formal disciplinary committee. "If we do not send out a clear and unequivocal message to Zimbabweans in general and in particular to our own members and staff that violence will not be tolerated, then we will simply reduce the standing of the MDC to that of our opposition, Zanu PF," he said.
There is a faint chance that the United Nations will effect a peaceful outcome. Kofi Annan says he intends to visit Zimbabwe. Previously, he sent a special envoy to report on the forced displacement of citizens and on Monday his envoy delivered strong criticism, calling Mugabe's campaign a violation of international law. Annan himself called it a "catastrophic injustice" to Zimbabwe's poorest. Mugabe has unsurprisingly criticized the U.N. report, but is still willing to play host to Annan. This could mean that Mugabe is willing to cooperate, or it could mean that he simply does not believe the United Nations is a threat.
"He did invite me to come," Annan said on Monday. "I would want to go to see how we can resolve some of the issues raised in the report. But I have not set a date yet."
He had better go soon or he will only be there to write the obituary of the country.
Roger Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
By Roger Bate