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Should Canada do anything at all about Zimbabwe?

July 6, 2008

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 lawit 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's Democratic Claims

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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2008 10:35 pm

    This is an interesting topic for me. All I can say for now is that Mugabe’s attitude towards Western interests is central to the Zimbabwe tragedy.

  2. July 16, 2008 3:56 am

    Hi there canworldjon,

    I’m late in responding to this post…i’ve been pondering for a while…particularly this paragraph:

    “Let me begin with a few caveats. Though certainly an advocate for its values, I would never suggest that democracy solves all, nor 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 can “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.”

    I like it that you’ve taken the time to identify what makes many of us queasy about intervention in another country’s affairs, especially when it’s a “first world/other world/north/south” dynamic. I guess i’m not always clear on what folks mean when they say “democracy” and i like the way you set out the practical on the ground realities of what life can be like, regardless of whether people get to cast a ballot in a booth on e-day. I worry that without a searching discussion about what we mean when we say ‘democratic reforms’ the risk of importing/imposing ethnocentric “do goodism” which can create more mess than intended (partitions of various kinds; pull-in/pull-outs by imperial powers). I’m reading a book (which i’ve talked about on this blog) that seems to touch on all these issues, albeit from a lit crit point of view, The End of Empire by Michael Gorra (University of Chicago Press); there’s also King Leopold’s Ghosts by A.Rothschild – about Belgium…lots of stuff that carries on in the the greater picture of Africa, African politics, that vast subcontinent. On the other hand, is doing nothing an option? Was it an option in Rwanda? or Kosovo?

    I enjoy reading your posts. R

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