Zimbabwe is in the midst of a slow-motion, man-made disaster. It is as if the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China were state-sponsored tragedies. President Robert Mugabe's internal terrorism does not simply consist of starving and harassing hundreds of thousands of people; it also amounts to the systematic demolition of Zimbabwe's one small hope of democracy. For a brief moment after the elections in late March, it seemed that the former freedom fighter might redeem his dictatorial legacy by acknowledging that the opposition had actually defeated him. But it turns out that the 84-year-old despot was just slow off the mark in beginning the further strangulation of his own nation. The recent order to shut down all international aid groups and humanitarian ngos has crippled the only institutions helping millions of Zimbabweans and removed all doubt about Mugabe's totalitarian objectives.
Yet it is precisely such deliberate actions that should be galvanizing nations and international organizations to protest and intervene. When there is a typhoon in Burma or an earthquake in China, the world knows what questions to ask. What can we do? How can we help? But when a calamity is preventable and unfolding systematically before our eyes, nations sit on their hands. The world, as W.H. Auden wrote in his beautiful poem Musée des Beaux Arts, "turns away quite leisurely from the disaster."
The government of South Africa, Zimbabwe's neighbor to the south and the nation most directly affected, averts its gaze. But with the runoff presidential election between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai due on June 27, why aren't the U.S. and other democracies making an attempt either to get Zimbabwe to hold genuinely free elections (admittedly, something that by now may be impossible) or to delegitimize in advance what will certainly be undemocratic results? It may be true, as Madeleine Albright has noted in the New York Times, that the idea of national sovereignty as inviolable has regained luster. Yet what meaning does sovereignty have when it is used to describe a state that not only starves its citizens but also snuffs out democracy?