Sunday, May 13, 2007

Zimbabwe to head U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development amid evidence of widespread human rights abuses and an economy in shambles

Zimbabwe has been narrowly elected to head of the main U.N. inter-governmental body on the environment, the Commission on Sustainable Development. The chair rotates among regions of the globe and this year it was Africa’s turn. Zimbabwe was the choice of African nations to take on the role. The choice was opposed by many nations and human rights organizations.

As Norman Geras points out one of the new details of horror coming out about that country in today’s London Times is the horrid conditions of the Chikurubi prison where hundreds of prisoners are dying of starvation because the prison officials have no resources to feed them.

This from today’s London Times:
ZIMBABWE may have left 700,000 of its citizens without accommodation by bulldozing their homes, caused millions more to starve after violent land seizures that destroyed farming and so mismanaged its own economy that it has the world’s highest inflation. But it has been chosen to head a United Nations body charged with promoting economic progress and environmental protection.

Western countries and human rights organisations were outraged yesterday by the choice of Zimbabwe to chair the UN commission on sustainable development. The British government condemned Zimbabwe’s election as “wholly inconsistent” with the body’s aims.

The chair traditionally rotates among regions of the world. It was Africa’s turn this year and the continent chose Zimbabwe as its candidate. “We really think it calls into question the credibility of this organisation to have a representative from a country that has decimated its agriculture, that used to be the breadbasket of Africa and can’t now feed itself,” said Daniel Reif-snyder, the US deputy assistant secretary for environment.

“For Zimbabwe to lead any UN body is preposterous,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organisation.

Not only has the regime of Robert Mugabe persistently used violence to repress all criticism, raping, torturing and beating opponents, but it has also turned development back by decades. Once the most affluent country in Africa, Zimbabwe now has the world’s lowest life expectancy. According to the World Bank no country has seen its economy shrink so much in peacetime.

The USAID Famine Early Warning Systems put out an alert last week warning that total food production in Zimbabwe for this season would meet only about 50% of its needs. It predicted that it would be less than half last year’s harvest, which left 1.5m dependent on food aid.

It added that the prevailing foreign currency shortages and high inflation, which had reached 2,200% by March according to the Central Statistical Office, would make it difficult for the government to import the necessary food.

The Sunday Times has learnt that hundreds of prisoners are dying of starvation in Zimbabwe jails because the authorities have no money to feed them. Convicts released last week from Chikurubi jail, after serving sentences of five to seven years, reported prisoners dying every day. The numbers are so high that the prison has been forced to open its own mortuary.

Prisoners are given just one meal a day, consisting of a few cabbage leaves, occasionally served with sadza (corn meal). The lack of nutrition has fuelled widespread tuberculosis and an outbreak of pellagra, a disease related to food deficiency from which many have died.

One prisoner who spent five years inside for armed robbery said he went to jail with two accomplices. He emerged alone. “I saw two of my friends wasting away as a result of disease,” he said. “I saw them dying one night and knocked and knocked on the prison door in order to alert the guards. They only arrived at 9am the following day when it was too late.”

Prison officers have told inmates that nothing can be done because they themselves are struggling to feed their families. Aside from food the prison service has no medicines, just like Zimbabwe’s hospitals.

Chikurubi prison also goes for weeks at a time without water for washing. Prisoners often go three weeks without bathing, yet they stay in crowded cells, often with 18 or 20 men sharing one small hole as a latrine. “We used to get washing soap regularly, now it’s just a small piece in a blue moon,” said one of the men.

This particularly affects female prisoners, some of whom have babies. They have no sanitary wear and their babies do not receive any supplementary food. Prisoners no longer get any new clothes; when their old ones fall apart, they have to wrap themselves in blankets.

A spokesman for the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender said prisoners were “living like animals”.

“Human rights abuses include overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, lack of clothing, medical care, food and balanced diet, spread of infectious diseases, high levels of mental illness and deaths are widespread,” he said.

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