Britain has forced the U.N. Security Council to hear a closed-door briefing on Zimbabwe's controversial urban slum demolition drive. The briefing took place despite the objection of several key Council members.
The author of a damning U.N. report on the slum destruction program spent more than an hour with the Security Council Wednesday discussing her conclusions.
The 100-page report issued last Friday calls the demolition campaign a "disastrous venture" that created an immense humanitarian crisis.
But Wednesday's Security Council briefing almost did not happen. A motion to consider the matter was approved on a rare procedural vote, receiving the minimum nine votes needed for passage.
Five countries: China, Russia, and all three African members Algeria, Benin and Tanzania, opposed the hearing. They argued that Zimbabwe does not pose a threat to international peace and security. A sixth member, Brazil, abstained.
After the vote, several ambassadors who voted "no" walked out of the Council chamber, leaving junior diplomats to attend the briefing.
Acting U.S. representative to the United Nations Anne Patterson expressed surprise at the diplomatic boycott, saying she had never witnessed anything like it.
It's the first time I've seen that, and since they all did the same thing I can only draw the conclusion that it was some sort of political statement," she said.
Britain, backed by the United States, had asked for the meeting to hear further details of U.N. envoy Anna Tibaijuka's recent survey of the destruction of Zimbabwe's shantytowns.
British Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry defended the briefing, saying he found it difficult to see how major dislocations inside one African state should remain a domestic affair.
"It was absolutely right in our view that the Council should hear Dr. Tibaijuka," he said.
After the briefing, Ms. Tibaijuka said her main purpose in addressing the Council had been to urge the international community to get involved in Zimbabwe.
"The fact that we have had a briefing shows there is a lot of concern and there is, of course I appealed for international action, which is assistance for those who are suffering, and I was encouraged to see that people want to know more and be able to assist," she said.
Zimbabwe's U.N. Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku also attended the Council briefing. Speaking to reporters afterward, he rejected Ms. Tibaijuka's conclusion that the demolition campaign had left 700,000 people homeless, and called her report "exaggerated".
"What we have found fault with that report is the loose language which has been open to various interpretations by various interest groups," he said. "And they have pounced on that report and interpreted that report to suit their own agenda."
Ambassador Chidyausiku singled out Britain for special criticism, charging the British government with harboring a persistent desire to place Zimbabwe on the Security Council agenda.
The envoy's comments echo Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who was quoted Wednesday as saying Ms. Tibaijuka had admitted she was under British pressure to produce a damning report. British Ambassador Jones-Parry flatly rejected the charge.
"First, there's been no pressure," he maintained. "Secondly, events speak for themselves, don't they. The facts substantiate her report, and she has produced a report on her own authority for the secretary-general, and no British fingerprints near it, the conspiracy theory does not apply.
Ambassador Jones-Parry urged countries to rally around and provide the humanitarian relief for Zimbabwe, which he said is going to be urgently needed.
President Mugabe has defended the slum demolition campaign as an urban cleanup drive, and promised to help in a rebuilding effort. But the Tibaijuka report concluded that, regardless of the motive, Zimbabwe will need several years to recover from the destruction.