Peter Oborne

Labour’s betrayal of Zimbabwe

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Peter Oborne reveals the scandalous consequences of the government's timid approach to Robert Mugabe, a tyrant who is now creating a famine among his own people

This autumn Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Africa, is on the verge of man-made famine. Soon refugees will be pouring out over the borders, above all into neighbouring South Africa. According to the United Nations six million people -half the population - are in peril of undernourishment or starvation.

Most famines are to some extent man-made. But very rarely are they created deliberately, as an act of government policy. Stalin engineered a rural famine to exterminate the kulaks in the 1930s. So it is with Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President. He has already set about eradicating his opponents. Aid agencies have noted that food is being diverted to Mugabe's political clients. Hundreds of thousands of black farmworkers are being lifted off the land, and dumped.

The white farmers left in Zimbabwe are, in statistical terms, not much more than an irrelevance. But they enable Mugabe to propagate the notion that he is the victim of a racist, colonial conspiracy. This elaborately constructed fantasy cuts less and less ice in Zimbabwe itself. But it seems to work in neighbouring countries, and above all in the regional superpower, South Africa, which has sat by as Mugabe has embarked on murder, torture, expropriation and ethnic cleansing. Mugabe's fantasy has carried great weight, above all, with the British government. The Zimbabwean President's constant emphasis on Britain's colonial past has had an astonishing effect. It has almost completely emasculated Tony Blair and his ministers. Again and again, in their quest for an excuse for inaction, government ministers have reverentially prayed in aid the anticolonialist sentiments of the Zimbabwean President.

The consequence has been a feeble and useless foreign policy. As the storm clouds have gathered, ministers have been timid and inert, and at times have shown a bewildering readiness to believe protestations and assurances from Mugabe himself. They have displayed some of the naivety of the idealistic, well-meaning and reasonably minded prewar British statesmen who preposterously believed that there was a deal to be done with the Axis dictators.

The determining moment in British policy came two years ago, as the first farm seizures occurred and Mugabe began to resort to open violence and intimidation as a means of keeping power. At this stage there were two schools of thought within the Foreign Office about how the impending calamity should be handled. Peter Hain, the minister of state, powerfully argued that Britain should engage directly with Zimbabwe and its neighbours. Hain, who as a young activist in the 1970s masterminded the exclusion of South Africa from world sport, knew the country far better than most, and had impeccable civil-rights credentials. He made a number of interventions, criticising not merely Mugabe for the murder of opposition opponents, but also implicitly the inert posture of the South African government. The outspoken Hain approach caused consternation among officials, and in due course he was stamped on. According to one well-placed Foreign Office source, Hain received a direct rebuke from Robin Cook (though the Foreign Office has officially denied this). Today Tony Leon, leader of South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, says that 'Hain is the best we've seen from the British government'.

Cook's own approach fitted in better with the languid Foreign Office preference for avoiding confrontation. As the first farm expropriations went on, Cook opted for a policy of 'quiet diplomacy'. At the Africa-Europe summit in April 2000 in Cairo, relations between Britain and Zimbabwe were restored to what the Independent called a 'frozen kind of friendliness'. Its report of 6 April 2000 recorded that Zimbabwe's President had agreed to halt his attacks on British leaders, while Britain had agreed to 'lower the temperature of its commentary'.

The Cairo summit set the tone for the torrid summer of 2000. In July, amid well-authenticated reports of violence, ballot-rigging and intimidation, Mugabe claimed his victory in the parliamentary elections. Robin Cook, flanked by a sick-looking Peter Hain, called an impromptu press conference to put the dZb