Should Canada do anything at all about Zimbabwe?
A debate on Canada’s role in Zimbabwe has taken shape here at Canada’s World. Heather began the conversation by asking what we should do to address the crisis. In response, I offered some thoughts about what a Canadian and international response might look like, given recent developments. Yesterday, Lisa offered a thought provoking post questioning whether there is any role at all for Canada, or the international community, to play in the troubled country. Corwin has likewise raised flags about getting involved. These concerns deserve a response– Adam has offered a good one and I’ll do my best here.
Let me begin with a few caveats. Though certainly an advocate for its values, I would never suggest that democracy solves all, nor necessarily even most, problems within a troubled state or territory. And in some cases, where a state lacks basic and functioning institutional, social and economic infrastructure — those things essential to providing citizens with the basic necessities– democracy itself can be a problem; aid-workers and state officials expend needless time and resources attempting to run messy bureaucratic elections while ignoring poverty, starvation and other problems in the broader population. Moreover, democracy is not an ideal that should be made to “take root” in a country by force or at the point of a bayonet. Concerns raised about Iraq and (arguably) Afghanistan are apposite and appropriate here.
But in this case, is it really a question of “foisting” democracy on anyone? I would argue it is not. First, as Adam has pointed out, democratic ideas and elections are not unfamiliar to Zimbabweans. Mugabe has run in, and comfortably won, several elections since coming to power in the early 1980’s. In fact, the alliance in the 1970’s between the ZANU, ZAPU and the Patriotic Front, though revolutionary, was at least in some sense democratic: they wished to overthrow the elite, minority rule state that had remained since British colonial rule. Though there were some reports of violence and intimidation in 1980, we can confidently say that a large majority of Zimbabweans voted for the ZANU-PF coalition in the general elections of that year, bringing Mugabe to power. In other words, the present government, though born of revolutionary violence, received its original claim to legitimacy from the people themselves. Since that time, Mugabe has grown progressively less popular through-out the country, a process that will likely continue at greater pace given recent events. Like Adam, I can’t say exactly when the first or second shoe dropped off Mugabe’s regime, but the recent parliamentary election loss means that the bell is tolling for his violent and corrupt government, with or without the international community.
But even if we were to put this history aside, I think Canada– and the rest of the international community– still has an important role– and even responsibility– to involve itself in addressing such “democratic” crises. The problem with brutal dictators, or in Mugabe’s case, revolutionary-figures-turned-violent-autocrats, is while they often demonize the international community for attempting to impose “Western values”, they still prefer to assume the mantle of legitimacy that democratic values confer: autocrats like Mugabe actually hold elections so they can proclaim they are carrying out the will or policies of “the people”. But it is here where the role of the international community emerges– beyond its obligations under international and humanitarian law— it is also the community’s collective responsibility to report on and help verify election results and democratic claims, and, where necessary, call out dictators and autocrats where and when they they fall short of the democratic ideals they assume, claim or espouse.
Mugabe would no doubt prefer holding an election without the international community or media reporting on any violence or voter intimidation or stories of ZANU-PF youth militias pillaging the countryside. But that would leave us derelict in our responsibility. Election observing is one thing the UN does very well: international observers ensure fairness and integrity in an election process, and countries that follow these things get an international “stamp of approval”. But when these things cannot be guaranteed, the international community can and should take action, in some way. Here, I have argued that encouraging the African Union to make Mugabe account for his conduct is the best step. I may be wrong about that, but I strongly believe that doing something, anything, to help resolve the matter, is right.