Zimbabwe is in a humanitarian crisis that is the result of a political crisis. A cholera epidemic has-as of January 12, 2009-left over 39,000 people infected and at least 2,000 dead, with the disease spreading to neighboring countries. This marks both the collapse of Zimbabwe's healthcare system and the calculated disregard for the welfare of Zimbabweans by the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The country is experiencing the sharpest rise in infant mortality in its history, and maternal mortality rates have tripled since the mid-90s. Meanwhile, over five million Zimbabweans face severe food shortages and are dependent on international aid. Making matters worse, ZANU-PF's repeated political interference in the work of humanitarian agencies and its attempts to conceal the extent of the disaster have severely hampered international efforts to help tackle these multiple crises.
ZANU-PF's longstanding assault on political freedoms and civil rights lies at the heart of Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis. While political violence, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions by the government of President Robert Mugabe peaked in the weeks leading up to the run-off presidential elections in June 2008, they have continued to the present as ZANU-PF uses repression to back its dubious claim to power. Over 40 supporters from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and human rights activists have "disappeared" or been arbitrarily detained since November 2008. ZANU-PF controlled police units continue to violently break up peaceful protests, and routinely arrest and harass MDC activists.
Despite the ongoing and massive violations of Zimbabweans basic rights, African governments have largely remained on the sidelines. The bi-annual summit of African Heads of State in Addis Ababa from January 26 to February 3, 2009, provides African leaders with a crucial opportunity to intervene effectively to end Zimbabwe's long-standing political crisis.
African leaders need to move beyond the failed mediation efforts of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Only concerted pressure on the Mugabe government can end Zimbabwe's unprecedented humanitarian emergency and the regional crisis it has created.
Hopes for an end to Zimbabwe's crisis were raised on September 15, 2008 when ZANU-PF and the MDC, with much fanfare from SADC and its mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, signed a Global Political Agreement (GPA) in which both parties committed to acting in a manner that demonstrated respect for democratic values and human rights. Many Zimbabweans and concerned outsiders hoped the agreement would end ZANU-PF's abusive practices, lead to a credible government of national unity, bring about the reengagement of foreign donors, and lead to a gradual recovery in the country's economic and social conditions.
Human Rights Watch and others warned that such an agreement would fail unless ongoing human rights abuses ceased and those responsible were held to account. Yet the continued absence of accountability in Zimbabwe remains a major block to progress. ZANU-PF has not honored the letter and spirit of the GPA: four months since it was signed, ZANU-PF violations of basic human rights continue and its policies have deepened the country's humanitarian crisis.
Increasingly, Zimbabwe is a sub-regional crisis. Political and economic instability, the cholera outbreak, and severe food insecurity have driven thousands of Zimbabweans into neighboring countries. Cholera has spread from Zimbabwe to South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique. In December 2008, South Africa in effect acknowledged the regional nature of the crisis by calling the spread of cholera from Zimbabwe to its border town of Musina "a disaster." The African Union (AU) should follow suit and openly acknowledge that the situation in Zimbabwe threatens the entire region.
The AU also has an opportunity to succeed where South Africa and SADC have failed. The AU Charter identifies respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as universal values and says that all states party to it must promote and adhere to them. By putting human rights at the core of the Zimbabwe crisis and acting swiftly against those who disregard them, AU leaders can create a credible basis for affecting a positive resolution.
Human Rights Watch calls on the AU to insert itself formally into the mediation process as impartial arbiters. If not, even greater numbers of Zimbabweans will suffer political persecution and the horrendous humanitarian conditions in their country, inevitably deepening and widening the regional crisis.