With an unerring sense of timing, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe arrived in Rome this weekend, thereby demonstrating the profound limitations of international diplomacy. Indeed, it's hard to think of any other single gesture that would so effectively reveal the ineffectiveness of international institutions in the conduct of both human rights and food-aid policy. Even someone standing atop the dome of St. Peter's, megaphone in hand, shouting, "The U.N. is useless! The EU is useless!" couldn't have clarified the matter more plainly.
For, yes, Mugabe is in Rome, at the invitation of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, which is holding a conference to discuss the very real international food crisis. He is also in Rome despite the fact that he has been formally forbidden from traveling to Europe by the European Union, which considers him persona non grata. For the last several years, his regime has beaten and murdered his political opponents in Zimbabwe so blatantly that even the Europeans noticed.
Nevertheless, it seems the Italians can't prevent him from being there this week. Since the summit is a U.N. event, U.N. rules take precedence over European or Italian border rules. This is not the first time Mugabe has taken advantage of this little loophole. He attended a previous U.N. food conference in Rome in 2002, during which he stayed at a five-star hotel on the Via Veneto, sent his wife out shopping, and bragged about how his "land reform" program—i.e., the wholesale theft of land from white Zimbabwean farmers and redistribution among political supporters—was going to enrich his nation's food supply.
It hasn't. According to Oxfam, 80 percent of Zimbabwe's population now lives on less than $1 a day, thanks to Mugabe's policies, and lacks access to basic foods and clean water. Inflation is at 100,000 percent, this year's harvest was poor, and Zimbabweans are fleeing their country in large numbers. Meanwhile, Mugabe is notorious for using food aid as a political weapon, distributing it only to those who reliably vote for him. Thus does his presence at a U.N. food summit contain many layers of troubling irony. Stephen Smith, the Australian foreign minister and one of Mugabe's more vocal critics, put it less delicately: "Robert Mugabe turning up to a conference dealing with food security or food issues is, in my view, frankly obscene."
And, as noted, the timing couldn't be worse: The United Nations is still (or should be) smarting from its recent failure to persuade Burma's generals—also notorious for using food aid as a political weapon—to accept any outside aid. As a result, a quarter of a million or so Burmese are still not receiving a steady supply of food and water a month after Cylcone Nargis hit the Burmese coast. The U.N. secretary-general did, after much wrangling, pay a visit to Burma, and the generals did, after much stalling, agree to allow a few foreign aid workers into the country. But even the United Nations' highest-ranking food-relief official recently conceded that "urgent work remains" to be done in Burma. Translation: The regime is still refusing to let relief workers travel to the afflicted region, still refusing to let others into the country, still refusing to let foreign ships land on the coast with aid.
In fact, the root of Burma's humanitarian crisis is a political crisis. The root of Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis is a political crisis, too. But because the United Nations was never set up to deal with political crises, it can't really address either humanitarian crisis. Officially, the United Nations has to respect the decision of the Burmese government not to feed its people. Officially, the United Nations feels it has to invite Mugabe to Rome, despite the E.U. ban. Indeed, one U.N. official justified his presence on the grounds that the United Nations is "about inclusiveness, not exclusivity," and besides, the food issue is so serious and this week's food conference is so significant that "the rest is irrelevant."
But that, of course, is nonsense: It is "the rest," in this case—the vicious dictatorship, the manipulation of agricultural policies for political ends, the fear and violence—that matter, not the rise in international commodity prices, the mass planting of biofuels, or drought. To their credit, Europe's leaders have tried to address "the rest," to put pressure on Mugabe by restricting his movements; to shun meetings he attends; and to demonstrate, in general, that his behavior is unacceptable. Though not especially effective so far, this isn't an entirely pointless policy: Mugabe clearly cares how Europe treats him, or he wouldn't go out of his way to defy its ban.
The European boycott might work a bit better, however, if the United Nations didn't help the Zimbabwean leader to flout it. Indeed, the United Nations should join it. If this really is a serious food conference, after all, an egregious abuser of his own country's food policy has no place at the table.