/ 3 June 2008

‘It’s like inviting Pol Pot to a human rights conference’

Robert Mugabe made a surprise appearance on Monday at a world food summit in Rome, drawing fierce criticism from the British government, which accused him of causing Zimbabwe’s food crisis.

In his first official trip abroad since coming second in presidential elections in March, Mugabe attended the summit organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to address the global crisis caused by dramatic increases in the prices of staple foods over the past year.

”This is like Pol Pot going to a human rights conference,” Mark Malloch Brown, the Foreign Office Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, told the Guardian. ”Zimbabwe is one of the few countries whose food crisis is not due to climate change or global prices, but due to the disastrous policies pursued by Mugabe.”

Australia’s foreign minister, Stephen Smith, said Mugabe’s attendance was obscene. ”This is a person who has presided over the starvation of his people.”

A European Union travel ban is in force against the Zimbabwean president, but it does not apply to UN events like this week’s summit. Mugabe was granted a waiver on the ban last year to attend a summit in Lisbon, prompting a boycott by Gordon Brown.

The prime minister had been contemplating coming to the Rome summit himself. British officials said the final decision not to attend was not a result of Mugabe’s appearance, but because it was felt that Brown’s presence would be more critical at other summits in the coming months.

Britain will be represented by the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander. A British official said he would leave the chamber when Mugabe spoke.

Neither Mugabe, nor Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were invited to the summit’s opening dinner hosted by Silvio Berlusconi and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on Monday night.

Ed Schafer, the US agriculture secretary, said on Monday he would not be meeting Mugabe, and said he hoped the appearance of the Zimbabwean leader and Ahmadinejad would not distract attention from the global food crisis that has added more than 100-million people to the ranks of the world’s hungry in less than a year.

FAO officials said they were not informed until Sunday night that Mugabe would be representing Zimbabwe in person.

Mugabe came second to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the country’s presidential election on March 29. According to official tallies, Tsvangirai fell short of the 50% needed to win outright, and a run-off vote is due on June 27.

The Zimbabwean government has been accused of intimidating the opposition. Two prominent opposition politicians were arrested on Sunday, and Tsvangirai cancelled two rallies on Friday because the police told him they would only be allowed after the second-round vote.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also denounced Mugabe’s attendance at the summit — which is aimed at addressing increases in food prices and soliciting more food aid from donor nations — and accused the Zimbabwean leader of preventing food aid deliveries to areas with high opposition support.

Carolyn Norris, the deputy director of HRW’s Africa division, said: ”The Zimbabwean government is blocking food aid to its own people for political reasons, so it’s ironic he’s coming to a food aid summit.”

Zimbabwe has historically been a breadbasket for Southern Africa, but last year it only produced half of the two million tonnes it needed to feed its people and livestock. — Â