Elephant in the room: Abe and Mugabe talk trade and aid but human rights off the agenda

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 4:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 7:13pm

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has extended a warm welcome to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as he looks to offset China’s growing influence in Africa and simultaneously win support for Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Overlooking 92-year-old Mugabe’s record of human rights abuses, his regime’s alleged involvement in the illicit trade in “conflict diamonds” and violations of his citizens’ freedom of opinion, association and peaceful assembly, Abe said the two governments had agreed to cooperate to reform the UN Security Council.

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Mugabe added that it is his desire to make the organisation “more inclusive and fully democratic” - a message that resonates with the Japanese leader as he seeks a permanent seat on an enlarged Security Council.

“Currently, the pace of reform is rather slow and we hope that members of the United Nations will work together to speed up this necessary adjustment,” Mugabe told reporters in Tokyo after discussions with Abe.

The Japanese leader also used the visit to announce 600 million yen (HK$40.96 million) in grant-in-aid for infrastructure development, including the construction of new roads, while Mugabe called for more Japanese companies to invest in his country.

That will also appeal to Abe, who is keen for a larger Japanese presence in Africa to counter what is seen as China ramping up its presence in a region that has traditionally been more of a market for geographically closer European countries.

“Much of Abe’s African policy is dictated by his desire to offset China’s growing influence across the continent and to improve Japan’s diplomatic profile,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

And Mugabe’s appalling human rights record and close historic ties with North Korea do not appear to have put Abe off extending the hand of friendship to a nation that held the presidency of the African Union until January and has been one of the key organisers of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which will be held in Kenya in August, the first time the Japanese initiative has been held in Africa.

Abe’s willingness to overlook Zimbabwe’s continuing links with Pyongyang have, in particular, raised some eyebrows in Japan.

As recently as 2013, Zimbabwe signed an agreement to export yellowcake from its uranium mines in Kanyemba to North Korea. In return, Pyongyang agreed to provide weapons.

In the mid-1980s, Mugabe personally ordered that wild animals be sent to the North Korean capital as a gift. Two endangered rhinos died shortly after arriving in Pyongyang, while subsequent plans to ship giraffes, zebras and baby elephants to North Korea were only cancelled after international pressure.

The North Korean football team also trained in Zimbabwe ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

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“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” said Kingston, although he suggested that there may be more to Abe’s apparent friendship with Mugabe than meets the eye.

“It can only be speculation, but it is possible that given Mugabe’s links with the regime in North Korea, Abe may see him as being able to provide a back channel link to Pyongyang,” he said. “Given China’s failure to influence North Korea, Abe may be exploring all the other options that are available.”