Strangling Democracy (VACLAV HAVEL, 6/24/04, NY Times)
Zimbabwe’s leaders know that the international community will cooperate with them only if they meet certain conditions. That is why they are trying to give the impression of democracy and thus escape international isolation, and why they distort the standard democratic mechanisms in order to create a semblance of citizens’ participation. At the same time, they create legal instruments that violate human rights. Democratic institutions are partly controlled by the leadership, partly circumvented by it.
A report published this year by the International Crisis Group, an international nonprofit group that works to resolve conflict, showed that many opposition members of Parliament in Zimbabwe have been subject to murder attempts, torture, assault and arrest. In parliamentary elections, President Robert Mugabe nominates 20 percent of members, who then become parliamentarians without a democratic mandate. Elections are regularly accompanied by organized violence and intimidation. The independent judiciary, one of the pillars of democracy, has been severely compromised, with the benches packed with Mr. Mugabe’s supporters.
A law adopted before the presidential elections in 2002 requires journalists to provide detailed information about themselves. If they do not, they will not receive a journalist license. The law, called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, has been used to close Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper and to arrest people for “suspicion of journalism.” The state now claims a virtual monopoly of written and broadcast media; foreign correspondents, meanwhile, are a thing of the past.
Another law restricts the freedom of association. The government in Zimbabwe has used this law, called the Public Order and Security Act, to stamp out any form of protest, to block practically any public activity of opposition groups. Under this law, women have been arrested for giving out flowers on Valentine’s Day.
The Orwellian names of these laws are both chilling and relevant. Totalitarian regimes may differ in small details — by the nature of their deviations, the degree of their representatives’ contrivance, the degree of their cruelty and brutality — but their nature is the same. And so is the manner of resisting such regimes.
President Bush has shown more interest in Africa than any of his predecessors, but it’s still been too intermittent. If he and Tony Blair made regime change in Zimbabwe as much a focus of world attention as it was in Liberia and Haiti they’d succeed.