February 20, 2003

ZIMBABWE: Mugabe in Paris, EU cancels Africa summit

Robert Mugabe arrived in Paris February 19 for a two-day Franco-African summit, sparking strong protests across the city and reviving a bitter diplomatic row about France's right to invite him. The Zimbabwean president, who stands accused of systematic brutality against his opponents and is theoretically banned from visiting the European Union, said nothing as he ducked into the five-star Plaza Athenée hotel where he is staying.

Outside, protesters waved banners saying "Arrest Mugabe for torture" and "Mugabe, murderer". Others, led by the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, staged a brief protest in front of the French justice ministry, and yet more pelted the Zimbabwean embassy with red paint. Police moved quickly to break up the demonstrations by force, in some cases dragging protesters away by their ankles, and the French government defended its invitation to Mr Mugabe, which had infuriated Britain and other EU countries.

Paris insisted it was permissible under EU sanctions against Mr Mugabe's regime, and said the summit would be a platform to engage the Zimbabwean leader on human rights concerns and his country's crisis.

"When you have things to say, you should say them to each other face to face," said the overseas cooperation minister, Pierre-André Wiltzer, adding that France did not believe in "a policy of silence, boycott and embargo".

The EU imposed travel restrictions a year ago to punish the Mugabe regime for human rights violations and policies that have sent the country lurching towards economic and political meltdown.

The sanctions, which included blocking development aid and freezing Zimbabwe's assets in Europe, were renewed last week, reportedly under a secret deal in which Paris promised to vote in their favour, provided London raised no objections to Mr Mugabe's summit visit.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, on a diplomatic roll, plainly hopes the conference will cement his reputation as a key player across Africa and not just in France's former, mainly west African, colonies.

He has made much of a "new partnership" between Europe and Africa, but critics say France should stop playing host to leaders who in some cases are under investigation by European and international courts for crimes including torture and genocide.

The Federation of Human Rights Leagues said the summit could achieve little while Paris turned a blind eye to widespread human rights and democratic abuses in countries such as Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Tunisia, Congo and the Central African Republic. "I suppose the lunches and dinners will give these leaders an opportunity to drink to the health of populations that are being massacred," said the group's president, Patrick Baudoin.

Mr Mugabe apparently felt no need to emerge from his hotel yesterday, and is not due to join the 51 other African leaders until the opening ceremony this morning. He will also attend tonight's state banquet for all visiting dignitaries. The renovated and much-chandeliered Plaza Athenée is one of Paris's top hotels.

A few days earlier, the European Union has postponed indefinitely a summit with African leaders planned for Portugal in April as a result of EU sanctions over Zimbabwe. African solidarity has proved a hindrance in isolating Mugabe. Most European countries had said they would boycott the summit if Mugabe was invited. African nations indicated they would stay away unless Zimbabwe was included. However France and Portugal had said that the summit should go ahead, arguing that it would be an opportunity to press the Zimbabwean leader on human rights matters.

A British Government spokesman said that they had been keen to maintain the EU-Africa relationship and had worked "hard" to salvage the meeting. "Zimbabwe has not given the assurances that President Mugabe would stay away, and it was clear that a number of EU leaders would not be willing to meet him at the present time," he said. "Therefore the decision to call off the meeting has had to be taken." However an EU official said that they hoped to reorganise the meeting "as soon as possible". EU diplomats also said that they had hoped that some African countries would support their efforts to politically isolate Mr Mugabe, however African solidarity with Zimbabwe had proved stronger than expected, Reuters news agency reported. (Guardian /London, Daily Observer /Banjul)

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