Southern African leaders are to meet in Johannesburg on Saturday as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) tries to end Zimbabwe?s political crisis. With eyes focused on the talks underway in Harare, rights activists are stressing that stopping the violence that has resulted in deaths of 163 government opponents since the disputed March 29 election, should take priority over securing agreement on a new power-sharing government between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). From Johannesburg, Human Rights Watch senior Zimbabwe researcher Tiseke Kasambala says that demobilizing and disarming all ZANU-PF supporters, youth militia, and war veterans is the only way to heal political strife and make it last beyond what she called a quick political fix.

?The problem here is that they have yet to come to an agreement, and the danger is that the issue of human rights on the ground in Zimbabwe as a matter of priority is being swept aside in the search for a quick political fix. And our view is that one of the causes of this crisis is the fact that human rights violations have taken place with absolute impunity since the 1980?s. Without addressing this, there can?t be any durable, long-term agreement,? she noted.

Human Rights Watch has expressed disappointment that Zimbabwe?s ruling political machinery continues to undermine its opponents by stirring attacks against villagers in rural areas, improperly detaining 12 opposition MPs who face what Human Rights Watch calls politically motivated criminal charges, and by imposing severe restrictions on the distribution of food aid by local and international humanitarian agencies. Kasambala says SADC leaders on Saturday should insist on agreement by the sides to a comprehensive program of human rights reform before any definitive political agreement can be hammered out.

?We have seen bad faith on the part of ZANU-PF as a political partner in that very little effort has been made to dismantle the torture camps and bases, to disarm and demobilize the armed ZANU-PF supporters and war veterans that are still rampaging through some of the rural provinces of Zimbabwe. And also, there has been very little investigation into the abuses that have taken place since March 29 and have few prosecutions of the abusers. So that is a serious problem,? she said.

Human Rights Watch researcher Kasambala says the challenge for SADC leaders who will come together in Johannesburg this weekend is how to move the process forward beyond the distrust that exists between the factions and their inability to accept each other?s terms for working together in a combined government.

?SADC leaders have today indicated that they would like to see both parties come to the table and negotiate. So in our view, they?ve been quite lenient with ZANU-PF, who we believe have been behind the violence. And one of the ways they can pressure the ZANU-PF is by saying, ?Look, we recognize that your people are behind most of the violence taking place in Zimbabwe. And if you want us to continue to support these negotiations and not to question your credibility as a genuine political partner in these negotiations, then you must take urgent measures to end the violence. Condemning and denouncing the violence, as ZANU-PF has done in the past few weeks is not enough,? she said.

With pressure mounting for SADC chief mediator President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa to get the parties to break the negotiating impasse, Human Rights Watch says that how SADC leaders react to being briefed by South Africa?s president could determine the direction where negotiations will proceed. Tiseke Kasambala says that with a communications blackout on progress at the talks, SADC leaders need to get President Mbeki to make human rights concerns a top priority on the negotiating agenda.

?It does look like President Mbeki is under intense pressure to help resolve the situation in Zimbabwe. And that?s because the crisis has had a huge impact on Zimbabwe?s neighbors. And it is within the interests of all SADC leaders to see this situation resolved,? she points out.

If SADC does not make clear that there must be significant human rights progress on the ground in Zimbabwe, and if President Robert Mugabe does nothing to end the violence, then Kasambala says SADC should look toward excluding him from attending future meetings of African heads of state until Zimbabwe shows signs of making progress in curbing domestic violence and human rights abuses.