On Saturday, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, will celebrate his 91st birthday in lavish style. Two elephants, two buffaloes, a lion, two sables, and five impalas are to be slaughtered for the feast in the resort town of Victoria Falls, according to state media.
The president, in power for nearly 35 years, is also likely to be enjoying a gift from the European Union. Earlier this week the EU announced it would resume development aid to Zimbabwe after 12 years of sanctions. Mugabe and his wife will still face travel bans and frozen bank accounts, but the aid package of €237 million sets a new tone for Zimbabwe’s relations with donors.
While important for ordinary Zimbabweans who desperately need the healthcare, agriculture, and good governance assistance the EU aid package promises to bring, it should also come with a clear message: respect for human rights is non-negotiable.
Zimbabwe’s track record on human rights is, of course, abysmal.
The 2008 elections were marred by political violence and vote-rigging. Zimbabwe’s military, state security agents, and supporters of Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) killed at least 200 opposition supporters and beat and tortured 5, 000 others. To date, almost no one has been held to account.
Attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are common, yet the authorities take little action. Mugabe, who has a long history of making homophobic remarks, again said in July 2014 that LGBT citizens are “worse than dogs and pigs” and threatened to behead them. State campaigns against civil society activists and journalists who criticize the government and the desperate economic situation also continue.
Implementation of some reforms, including the enactment of a new constitution in May 2013, may have encouraged the EU to pursue a new policy of gradual re-engagement. The constitution includes some strong rights provisions, though so far Mugabe’s government has failed to implement them.
But the EU aid package will need to be closely monitored to avoid money being siphoned off by corrupt government officials. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented the Zimbabwe government’s misuse of humanitarian assistance to coerce some 20, 000 flood victims from the Tokwe-Mukorsi dam basin to accept a derisory resettlement package. The EU will need to prevent similar misuse of aid.
The government should take the EU aid package as an incentive to fully implement the constitution, work toward sustainable economic development that improves people’s lives, and abide by Zimbabwe’s international legal obligations. Good governance, the rule of law, and respect for human rights are not ideas imposed by Western donors, but are an entitlement of all Zimbabweans. This government, and future ones, should recognize that.