Why “Do Something” Is Not A Strategy

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By Victoria Holt – Zimbabwe and its leader, Robert Mugabe, are in the news again with hope for a breakthrough in the stalemate with his political opposition. The world has watched in horror as this beautiful country—which emerged from British colonial rule in 1980—has descended into much dreaded collapse.

The ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe has shown the international community how poorly its tools for conflict prevention perform when a nation’s government threatens its own people. Well-meaning calls for action often reiterate familiar formulas, yet lack clarity, resources and an overall strategy that can demonstrate success. Three key areas need to be addressed so that the world is better able to prevent and halt potential violence escalation in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

How did we get here? The world has had plenty of time to anticipate the escalation of violence and a potentially devastating melt-down in Zimbabwe, yet the international community’s recent efforts to act (and react) effectively are stymied.

First, we need clarity about the use of military peacekeepers. Those calling for international forces, such as Mugabe’s opposition, Desmond Tutu and some NGOs, are well-intended and hope that peacekeepers could back up efforts for peace and to provide security for the population. But there is a clear difference between those calling to deploy a United Nations-led peacekeeping force to back up a peace agreement, which the UN can usually do; and a military intervention to halt violence against civilians by their own national leaders, which the UN is ill-prepared to do. Those are fundamentally different missions. Peacekeepers usually are sent to help governments, not to oppose them, and Zimbabwe could be very hostile to letting them in. Without that willingness, a government can make it difficult to impossible, such as seen in Darfur with the Sudanese government’s on-going undermining of the UN-AU force.

Second, we need to improve our ability to assess what is generalized conflict and what is violence that could move into ethnic cleansing and genocide. This question underlies UN and international debates about the right course of action. In Zimbabwe, the political situation has teetered into chaos, for example, with its citizens facing dwindling food supplies and record inflation that requires millions just to buy milk or bread. The March 29th elections were widely denounced as fraudulent. Violence against opposition forces has grown deep and persistent. Human rights groups have documented crimes against humanity and called for the prosecution of Mugabe’s political allies. As such, how able are the UN and other international organizations to anticipate and decipher this emerging level and kind of violence, which impacts the ability to halt it? An understanding of what kind of violence defines the unrest —localized or broad, genocidal or not—would help sort out political arguments and establish the basis for action against a state’s leader. Without it, debates in the Security Council easily stall on general arguments – such as they did about whether Zimbabwe poses a threat to international peace and security.

Third, we need to invest in strategies that enable efforts by United Nations and regional groups to drive diplomatic efforts in nations in conflict, rather than rely on a few individuals to take on this role. Too often delegation of authority is to an individual to mediate a tough problem without strong institutional support. The “good offices” of South African leader Thabo Mbeki, for example—who also speaks for the regional group SADC and is viewed as a senior African leader—appear more to have coddled Mugabe than to have helped transition him from power. International eagerness to support the African Union and subregional organizations such as SADC should translate better into results. Certainly, the results of regional organization leadership may not always please everyone, as demonstrated by the AU supporting deferral by the Security Council of recent charges against Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court for waging a campaign of genocide and rape. But creating a strong mediation and diplomatic corps for the United Nations and the African Union will energize their efforts and help establish a means of engagement in the future.

In short, Zimbabwe demonstrates areas where we have a long way to go to improve tools that deal with intransient leaders who do not protect their own citizens from—or target them with—politically-driven violence. Distinguishing between modern peacekeeping and the use of force to intervene against a government’s will is critical, and should be backed up by an understanding of the degree to which leaders will go to hold onto power and to harm populations.


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