Western leaders have attacked Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s presence at a UN summit on hunger given his role in leading his own country toward starvation.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said it was “obscene” that a person “who has presided over the starvation of his people” would be attending the three-day conference which begins tomorrow at the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The Dutch minister for overseas development was similarly scathing. “President Mugabe is personally responsible for the absurdly high food prices and grinding poverty in Zimbabwe,” Minister Bert Koenders said in a statement.
His ministry said Dutch delegates would take part in the conference.
Mugabe was driven into Rome with a police escort after arriving yesterday He is normally subject to travel sanctions that prevent him and more than 100 other political figures in Zimbabwe from setting foot on EU territory.
The travel restrictions, along with other sanctions, were imposed by the EU in 2002 because of Zimbabwe’s poor record on human rights. The ban was renewed in 2007.
However, EU officials say the ban does not apply to United Nations summits. And Mugabe also attended an EU-Africa summit in Portugal in 2007.
Although the travel ban was imposed by the European Union, it does not take an EU decision to lift it. Instead, it is up to the EU member country concerned, in this case Italy, to decide whether to issue Mugabe a visa.
A Food and Agriculture Organisation spokesman said the sanctions have no bearing on Mugabe’s participation, since the United Nations is the forum for the meeting.
The “sanctions don’t apply. Just as President Castro used to regularly travel to the United States to attend UN General Assembly sessions, Mugabe is free to attend the Rome summit”, said a spokesman.
About 40 nations are sending heads of government or state to lead their delegations at the summit, according to food organisation.
”The Zimbabwe delegation is going, and it happens to be headed by the president, just as the French delegation is headed by Sarkozy, the Spanish by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the Brazilian delegation by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva“ he said.
Mugabe’s appearance at this week’s summit, where he is expected to give his delegation’s speech, is his first official foreign trip since he finished second in a March 29 presidential race. And it comes as his government cracks down on the opposition in the run-up to a June 27 presidential run-off election.
Mugabe has overseen Zimbabwe’s descent from a regional breadbasket into an economic basket case, with an increasing number of Zimbabweans unable to afford food and other essentials.