BRITAIN cannot go it alone in a bid to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told MPs yesterday.
The Conservative Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram, charged the government with "supine inaction" in the face of worsening violence in Zimbabwe, blaming the prime minister and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.
"If the Foreign Secretary has not the stomach for his task, he should make way for someone that does," Mr Ancram said.
But Britain is working hard to stop President Robert Mugabe’s misrule in Zimbabwe and bring democratic elections to the African nation, Mr Blair insisted. He deplored the violence that was occurring there and called Mr Mugabe’s leadership "a disgrace".
"However, in order for a motion to succeed at the Commonwealth to expel Zimbabwe, it is necessary to get more than one country supporting it, it is necessary to get all the countries supporting it," he said. "We are working urgently and energetically with all other countries to make sure that the policies of Mr Mugabe are reversed and proper and democratic elections held in Zimbabwe."
Britain is likely to be watching for the reaction of African nations before it throws its diplomatic weight against Zimbabwe. The issue has threatened to split the Commonwealth along white-black lines, with South Africa in particular seeming reluctant to give up its old ties to Zimbabwe’s leaders from the days of the struggle against white-only regimes.
Earlier, Ben Bradshaw, the junior Foreign Office minister, had said Britain would call for Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth if Mr Mugabe violated its values.
The eight-strong Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the group’s democracy watchdog, will discuss calls for Zimbabwe’s suspension at a meeting in London next Wednesday.
The issue could come to head at a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia in March, Mr Bradshaw said. He cited worries over vote-rigging and intimidation of opposition parties in the approach to presidential elections in March.
Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, said that for months there has been an overwhelming case for sanctions, such as restrictions on bank accounts and travel, on Mr Mugabe and his associates.
"I do not pretend the simple imposition of sanctions will overnight restore Zimbabwe to the kind of democracy we would all hope it to be," he said. But some restrictions ought to be in place now, Mr Campbell said.
The opposition party in the coming elections, the Movement for Democratic Change, yesterday called on the EU to support these personal, or targeted sanctions, at a foreign ministers’ meeting on Monday.
But while France, a key player, now backs such measures, they are threatened by opposition from Spain and Portugal.
The personal sanctions would resemble measures taken against the military regime in Burma, whose leaders are barred from travel to EU nations.
The CIA, British officials and banks have already begun building a picture of the international assets and activities of Mugabe’s inner circle, seen as the way to hit where it hurts. New US laws would allow the freezing of their accounts.
"The CIA has put the list together: they have put together names, and assets," said John Prendergast, of the International Crisis Group.
US Congress leaders have warned that Zimbabwe’s leaders may be siphoning millions abroad at a time when food is so short in the country that Zimbabweans are stealing from farms across the borders in South Africa.
The first to suffer from any sanctions, unfortunately, could be the children of Zimbabwean leaders being educated at schools and universities in the US and UK. The accounts used to pay their fees and living allowances - reaching to thousands of pounds a year, at a time when Zimbabwe’s own school system is in danger of collapse - are cited as an obvious target. Travel bans could prevent contact with their parents.
Far more challenging for Western investigators is tracking down foreign bank accounts. They will be trying to trace funds from the Zimbabwean military’s commercial operations in the Congo, with rich mineral and natural resources, from hard woods to diamonds, worth billions of pounds.
But it is rumoured in Zimbabwe that funds repatriated in a hurry, under the threat of Western action, may be partly responsible for a sharp increase in property prices in the country.
Key figures on the target list include Mr Mugabe himself. Last December the 77-year-old leader was reported to have diverted an Air Zimbabwe flight to Spain for medical treatment on his eye. His much younger wife Grace, meanwhile, would be barred from leisurely shopping trips to London and Paris.
Emerson Mnangagwa, the speaker of the Zimbabwean parliament, and one of Mr Mugabe’s most loyal cadres, is said to have several children being educated in both Britain and the US. Mr Mnangagwa is described as a key figure in organising Zimbabwe’s commercial exploitation of the Congo.
Others whom targeted sanctions would be likely to identify include Jonathan Moyo, the information minister and the minister of justice, Patrick Chinamasa. There are also the army and police chiefs who have declared their lasting loyalty to Mr Mugabe and the Zanu PF party.