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Zimbabwean authorities discriminate against perceived political opponents by denying them access to food programs, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. International relief agencies in Zimbabwe fail to ensure that access to food is based on need alone and is not biased by domestic or international political concerns.

The 51-page report, "Not Eligible: The Politicization of Food in Zimbabwe," documents how food is denied to suspected supporters of Zimbabwe's main opposition party and to residents of former commercial farms resettled under the country's "fast-track" land reform program. The report examines the widespread politicization of the government's subsidized grain program, managed by the Grain Marketing Board, as well as the far less extensive manipulation of international food aid.

According to the report, government authorities and party officials of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) manipulate the supply and distribution of government-subsidized grain and the registration of recipients for international food aid. Though international aid agencies, including the World Food Programme, have gone to great lengths to prevent interference, this kind of manipulation remains a problem. International aid agencies must devote greater resources and attention to preventing the manipulation of recipient lists. The report also examines international community's tacit complicity in preventing food from reaching former commercial farm areas resettled under land reform.

"Select groups of people are being denied access to food," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "This is a human rights violation as serious as arbitrary imprisonment or torture."

Today one-half of Zimbabwe's population of nearly 14 million is considered "food-insecure," living in households that are unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs. The international community has spent hundreds of millions of dollars pouring food aid into Zimbabwe, yet thousands continue to go hungry.

Any perceived political adversaries of ZANU-PF or the government encounter difficulty gaining access to food. Known members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are top-most among perceived enemies. This category also encompasses teachers, former commercial farm workers and urban residents-groups generally considered to favor the MDC. In effect, without a ZANU-PF party card, a Zimbabwean cannot register for or receive government-subsidized grain.

Often international relief agencies need to rely on local authorities in some cases to determine beneficiary status, which leads to a certain degree of political manipulation. However, some international aid programs are also politicized. According to insiders of the international aid regime, some international donors are opposed to funding aid for those resettled on the former commercial farms that were redistributed under the "fast-track" land reform program. The international aid agencies universally deny that donors' political opposition to land reform is a factor, explaining that they cannot distribute any relief food in these areas until a comprehensive needs assessment has been completed by the government.

"Politically, it is disadvantageous for the Zimbabwe government to investigate need on the resettled farms," said Takirambudde. "If the farms are not productive and people are hungry, the government's land reform program will look like a failure. It seems that the government is manipulating relief efforts, and that the international community is playing along even though people on the resettled farms need food desperately."

Human Rights Watch asserted that the Zimbabwe government has an obligation under international and domestic law to supply food without reference to race, religion, ethnicity or regional origin, or to residence, sex or political affiliation. The government should instruct authorities in charge of beneficiary lists to abide by the principle of nondiscrimination.

The government should impress upon the leadership of all political parties that it is prohibited under domestic and international law for politicians and party supporters to use food to influence or reward constituents or voters. Punitive action should be taken against those who flout this prohibition.

Human Rights Watch recommended that the international community continue to fight the politicization of relief food through its efforts to maintain tight controls on food distribution and to implement all aspects of relief efforts directly or through local non-governmental organizations.

Human Rights Watch also emphasized that international aid should not be based on any factor other than need. In particular, farmers who were resettled under the "fast-track" land reform program should be eligible to receive food aid from all international sources. Donors that have withdrawn support for humanitarian programs in Zimbabwe should reconsider their duty, under international law, to assist those in need.

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