Press conference by Special Envoy on Human Settlements issues in Zimbabwe

Instead of apportioning blame, the international community had a duty to stand together with the Government and people of Zimbabwe to assist that tragic situation on the ground, Anna Tibaijuka, Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), said today in a press briefing on her recent mission to assess the scope and impact of "Operation Murambatsvina" in that country.
She said that the challenges of urbanization, playing out in a catastrophic fashion in Zimbabwe, were quietly but surely playing out in the whole of Africa, the world's fastest-urbanizing continent. With 37 per cent of its population already living in cities, Africa would cease to be a rural continent by 2030. When a country tried to clean up cities and set things right, a crisis like the one unfolding in Zimbabwe could be unleashed.

Before introducing Ms. Tibaijuka, Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for Secretary-General Kofi Annan, read out a statement on his behalf in which he characterized Ms. Tibaijuka's as "profoundly distressing" in confirming that Operation Murambatsvina had done a "catastrophic injustice" to as many as 700,000 of Zimbabwe's poorest citizens, carried out with "disquieting indifference to human suffering". (For details of the statement, see Press Release SG/SM/10012.)

Providing some background, Ms. Tibaijuka recalled that on 19 May, the Zimbabwean Government had launched "Operation Murambatsvina" (Operation Restore Order), which it had described as a mechanism to enforce the by-laws by stopping vending, illegal structures, illegal cultivation and other such activities in the cities. On 20 June, the Secretary-General had appointed her Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe and asked her to assess the situation on the ground and present recommendations on how to address the conditions of those affected. The appointment had followed an agreement between the Secretary-General and President Robert Mugabe, who had helped her do her work unimpeded.

That maximum support was a good indication that, despite what had obviously gone wrong, there seemed to be a desire to move forward, she said. It had enabled her to undertake a critical but forward-looking, assessment of the situation on the ground and to make recommendations directed to the various stakeholders, namely the Government and people of Zimbabwe, as well as the United Nations and the international community -- each of whom would have a role in setting the situation right.

She said the situation on the ground, was quite complex and did not render itself to quick, simplistic opinions, generalizations or solutions. Her findings and recommendations were equally complex, involving both an immediate humanitarian need to avert further suffering, a need to allow progress in areas requiring reforms and, both in the policy and legal areas, a need to create a basis for sustainable reconstruction and relief. The Secretary-General had accepted her recommendation that urgent assistance was needed to avert further suffering on the part of the victims and it was sincerely to be hoped that the findings and recommendations would be helpful to the Government and useful in mobilizing international assistance for the people of Zimbabwe.

The two-week mission, from 25 June to 8 July, had included consultations at all levels of government and civil society throughout the country, she continued. It had included visits to all the major urban centres -- Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, Gweru and Victoria Falls, home to one of the eight wonders of the world. The mission had held town hall meetings with civil society, and been further informed by hundreds of written submissions and testimonials. The briefings provided by members of the international community, both inside and outside Zimbabwe, had also been very useful. Above all, the mission had witnessed, first-hand, demolitions and evictions at two sites -- Porta Farm in Harare and Luveve in Bulawayo.

She said that the expectation created by the mission could prove to be counterproductive if it did not materialize in actual assistance to those who were suffering. The Secretary-General had already said that international criticism of events in Zimbabwe was not enough unless it was matched by support to those who needed it now.

Giving a summary of her findings, she said an estimated 700,000 people in cities and towns across the country were direct victims of the operation, an estimate based on government statistics. If one were to analyse the implications of those affected indirectly, both in terms of the "upstream and downstream linkages" with a suitable multiplier, Operation Murambatsvina had affected some 2.4 million people, or 18 per cent of Zimbabwe's population. People were facing great difficulties in one way or another, particularly the loss of household incomes, and the informal sector had been wiped out with considerable repercussions.

With 700,000 people badly affected and needing immediate assistance with food, water, sanitation services, and above all, shelter, the Government should cease operations immediately, she said. There was also an urgent need for the Government to facilitate humanitarian operations within a pro-poor and gender-sensitive policy framework, the majority of victims on the ground being women and the children they supported. There was also an immediate need for the Government to revise the outdated RegionalTown and Country planning laws, which actually governed management of the cities. They emanated from the colonial period and had been devised to keep the towns for a select few. It was their rigorous application that had actually generated the humanitarian crisis.

She said there was also a need to revive dialogue and restore trust between different spheres of the Government, as well as between the Government and civil society. Those who had orchestrated the catastrophe must be brought to account, and the Government should be encouraged to find the courage to set things right. There was no evidence on the ground that the operation had been a planned programme, but the few people who had advised its launch should be brought to account. The Government should itself set a good example in terms of following the rule of law before asking its people to do so. In a number of instances demolitions had proceeded despite court orders.

Noting that the wrecking of the informal sector would have repercussions in terms of unemployment and restoring livelihoods, she stressed the need to revive small-scale income-generating activities, adding that she was also recommending that the Government take urgent measures to grant full citizenship to former migrant workers from neighbouring countries, notably Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. Those were the people working on the commercial farms, and most of them had been adversely affected by Operation Murambatsvina.

A correspondent asked how someone of President Mugabe's standing and power could not have been directly involved in approving and authorizing the operation. In her meetings with the President, had any understanding been reached that the United Nations would not pursue him for crimes against humanity, but would instead try to raise funds for Zimbabwe in exchange for his cooperation, including in terms of humanitarian access?

She said in reply that she had attached to her report (see page 97) very specific, technical terms of reference to assist the situation on the ground. She was not really looking to apportion blame, but trying to understand the situation in order to be able to solve the problem and determine its origins. It came from a simple misconception that it was possible to reverse urbanization. In terms of collective responsibility, the Government of Zimbabwe was, of course, responsible for what had happened, but in the absence of a coherent, well thought out plan, it was also clear that a group of people advising those in high office were behind the operation. It was up to the Secretary-General to pursue that issue further with President Mugabe.

Asked again how President Mugabe could not have been personally responsible in a country that Ms. Tibaijuka had described as increasingly centralized, she reiterated that her work was based on the terms of reference. Her mandate had been, first, to assess the situation and second, to make recommendations, which were now before the Secretary-General.

She said it was now for the United Nations to mobilize the international community. The recommendation was very clear -- unless assistance was to be offered, then value was not being added, only criticism. And that was the Secretary-General's message.

Another correspondent, citing her remark that it was a misconception to think it was possible to reverse urbanization, noted that civil society in Zimbabwe had said the operation was a campaign to break up opposition strongholds, particularly in the shanty towns, and to spread those people out into the rural areas. How much credence did she give to their claim that the goal was much more nefarious?

She said that in her report, she had tried to put up a number of conjectures around the idea that urbanization was irreversible and that it was an economic misconception to think that it was possible to send people back to the countryside. One reason for the crisis in Zimbabwe was the expectation that people would return to the countryside. They had not done so. People were staying put in the towns, hoping for assistance.

Was her suggestion, in the long-term, following the provision of humanitarian assistance, to help rebuild the urban centres, and in that case, would the Zimbabwe authorities basically be rewarded for having carried out the demolitions? another correspondent asked.

Ms. Tibaijuka said that in terms of sustainable construction and relief, there was "positive conditionality" in terms of revising the laws on the ground and making the necessary reforms. Zimbabwe was a country at peace with a working infrastructure, so her suggestion was not to squander what was on the ground, but to rebuild, move forward and assist those in need.

Another correspondent noted that, according to the report, an African Union envoy had actually been asked to leave while conducting his assessment. Had President Mugabe told her why he had been asked to leave, and how could the African Union play a role if it had been unable to complete a mission?

Ms. Tibaijuka said her understanding was that the African Union had not put up the former President of Mozambique as its envoy, and coming on the heels of the report, there had been some kind of breakdown in communication with the organization's envoy on the ground. Now there was a new envoy and there was thought to be dialogue between the Government of Zimbabwe and the African Union.

Was President Mugabe responsible for the policies that he announced and, if so, was there some sort of appropriate legal or diplomatic response? another correspondent asked. Should he not be held accountable for a policy of his Government?

She said collective responsibility could never be ruled out, but like all matters of government, her recommendation to the Secretary-General had been clear -- there was a need for accountability, and a need to stop impunity. Definitely some people had given bad advice, and they should be held accountable.

As for whether the report would provide the leverage to get other African countries to pressure Mr. Mugabe to stop what he was doing and engage in some form of political mediation with the opposition, she said that if read carefully, the report had a message. The crisis had implications for everybody -- the international community, the African community, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Asked whether she had felt a sense of disappointment, upon seeing the destruction, that the African Union had not intervened sooner, she said she had been busy doing her work, but had no reason to believe that the African Union and the SADC were not concerned.

In reply to another question, she said the humanitarian situation on the ground had to be dealt with unconditionally to save lives. Then the focus could turn to reforms. It was not true to say that anybody was trying to prop up a regime; it was about saving lives and then creating the conditions for change. She had met the opposition leaders, and they were all looking for assistance.

In terms of international response, she said that, as a follow-up to the report, figures would have to be evolved for large-scale humanitarian assistance. The Secretary-General had first to accept her recommendations, but clearly, considerable resources would be needed. The Government itself had put up a $300 million reconstruction programme at great cost in terms of the other needs on the ground. There was a serious food shortage in Zimbabwe and the HIV/AIDS infection rate was 25 per cent, so there were serious challenges on the ground.

There had been a confluence of factors, and there was no room for simplistic conclusions, she said in response to a further question. There was genuine concern about "chaotic urbanization", not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout Africa. A number of factors had caused Operation Murambatsvina but she was not in a position to rank which came first.

Asked why she had reported that it would be difficult to sustain a charge of crimes against humanity in that operation, she reiterated that she had not been sent to apportion blame or to assess whether crimes against humanity had been committed. In many submissions, however, that seemed to be a consistent concern. It was up to the Secretary-General and the Security Council to proceed on that score if they wished. International criminal procedures required a commission of inquiry, as had been done in the case of the Sudan.

Had President Mugabe stood by the policy or expressed any remorse over what had happened? a correspondent asked.

Ms. Tibaijuka replied that he was obviously concerned about what had happened and wished to move ahead. That was why it had been possible to do the assessment and evolve a critical but forward-looking report.

Had she told the President that she wanted the policy immediately halted? another correspondent asked.

She said that on the day of her arrival, it had been announced that the operation was winding up.

To another question, she said she hoped the Government would be able to heed her recommendations once the Secretary-General had accepted them.

Asked if money raised for the crisis should go to the Government, she said it should really go to the victims. There were many ways to assist the people, not necessarily through the Government. There were many ways to channel aid directly, cutting out "unnecessary blockers" in the transaction. The Government, however, was part and parcel of the equation.