Merkel Will Continue Human Rights Crusade at Africa Summit | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.12.2007
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Merkel Will Continue Human Rights Crusade at Africa Summit

Despite a desire to do more business with Africa, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that she will not keep quiet about human rights concerns at an upcoming Europe-Africa summit.

Map of Africa with superimposed EU stars

Leaders have high hopes for the bilateral summit

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe can expect a lecture from Merkel when the two meet at a summit between the European Union and Africa, which starts in Lisbon on Friday, Dec. 7. Merkel promised to publicly speak out against Mugabe's corrupt government and contrast the economic chaos in Zimbabwe with progress being made elsewhere in Africa.

Mugabe's presence at the summit has posed a moral dilemma for many European leaders. While African countries insisted on his presence, he is viewed as a dictator in the West. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown cancelled after learning Mugabe would attend.

Merkel will take a more confrontational approach.

"This is such an important summit meeting that we should not let the presence of one country keep us from paying our respects to the rest of the continent," Merkel said Wednesday.

Europe wants more influence in Africa

A woman works at a textile factory in Eritrea

Europe wants to strengthen economic ties with Africa

The EU recently restated its commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in any partnership with Africa. Yet it's also unlikely that Merkel and other European leaders' insistence on discussing human rights will derail EU efforts to increase economic ties with Africa.

Merkel, like many of her European counterparts, sees the summit as a rare chance to form a strategic alliance with Africa on issues such as trade and security. It's the first time in seven years EU and African leaders have met.

Along with important economic agreements, countries hope to discuss immigration and climate change.

The summit is also seen as being crucial to counteracting China's growing sway on the continent. Europe is currently Africa's biggest trading partner, but China has been steadily increasing its aid, investments and influence in Africa.

Merkel's ethical stance is heartfelt

Chancellor Angela Merkel with the Dalai Lama

Merkel met with the Dalai Lama despite criticism from China

Growing up as the daughter of a Lutheran minister in communist East Germany, gave Merkel personal experience with human rights issues. Merkel has said that she would never promote business at the expense of human rights.

"Human rights policy and representation of economic interests are two sides of the same coin," Merkel said. "They should never be opposed to each another."

Merkel has shown that she understands the linkage between democratic values and economic prosperity, said Ulrike Guerot, a Senior Policy Fellow in the German office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Merkel has made human rights a cornerstone of her foreign policy. She has not shied away from criticizing the human rights record of important trading partners like Russia and China. She has even chastized her ally United States President George Bush for holding suspected terrorists without due process in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her unwavering position has earned her respect from fellow Christian Democrats as well as internationally, Guerot said.

On the other hand, Merkel is not likely to derail talks with Africa over her human rights stance, Guerot said, as "it's a twofold dialogue."

Criticism unlikely to sway Mugabe

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe attends a commemoration of Heroes Day

Mugabe has been a lightning rod of criticism

Mugabe, 83, came to power in 1980 after Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain. Along with being accused of a variety of human rights abuses, he is also blamed for sinking Zimbabwe into an economic crisis. Unemployment in the country stands at 80 percent and inflation has reached some 3,700 percent in recent years.

Yet the bilateral summit wouldn't have taken place without him. Many African leaders view him as a hero of independence and insisted on his presence in Lisbon. While Brown boycotted the summit, nearly 80 other EU and African leaders will attend.

Both Brown's boycott and Merkel's confrontation send Mugabe an important message of disapproval, said Dzikamai Machingura, the national director of ZimRights, a human rights group based in Zimbabwe's capital city of Harare. Yet Machingura hopes Europe won't give Mugabe's government a blank check. Aid money without evidence of human rights improvements would be like "feeding a bully," Machingura said.

Merkel also shouldn't be under any delusions that her tough talk will change the situation in Zimbabwe. Most likely, when faced with criticism at the summit, Mugabe will react arrogantly and dismissively, Machingura predicted.

Diplomacy will determine outcome

Labourers offload grain form a truck

Europe is a vital partner in Africa

It's hard to predict how Mugabe or other African leaders will comport themselves at the summit, said Ross Herbert, head of the governance program for the South African Institute of International Affairs. There's growing recognition among African leaders that human rights are an important part of bringing economic and democratic progress to their countries.

Yet Europeans will need to be careful in how they single out Zimbabwe or Sudan for criticism as there's also a tradition in Africa of "closing ranks against outside critics," Herbert said.

In the end, it's criticism from other African leaders, not from Europe, that could convince Mugabe to change, Machingura and Herbert said. But at the summit, criticism of Mugabe is likely to come from Europe, not Africa.

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