Germany ambassador: Do Diplomats Interfere in Zambia’s Internal Affairs?

Observations by German Ambassador to Zambia Bernd Finke

Over the past weeks I have seen a number of articles in the Zambian media or letters to newspaper editors which suggest that foreign diplomats interfere in Zambia’s internal affairs and thus violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

To support this assertion, commentators mostly refer to regular meetings between diplomats and representatives of the opposition parties or they quote public statements by diplomats on governance and human rights issues such as the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly or the freedom from discrimination. Another bone of contention seems to be the financial assistance, which is provided by Embassies to Zambian civil society organizations. Diplomats are also suspected of pursuing so-called political agendas in order to support a regime change in the country.

Well, as far as I am concerned the commentators have a point: I have regular meetings with members of the opposition, I make public statements on human rights issues, Germany supports civil society organizations and – yes – my country does have a political agenda in Zambia. But is it justified to qualify these activities as unlawful interferences into Zambia’s domestic affairs? My answer is “no”, and here are the reasons why:

Let me start with the issue of “political agendas”: Germany does indeed have a political agenda in Zambia. But this agenda is by no means guided by party politics or party programmes. It is guided by our long term commitment to fundamental political principles, such as the rule of law, democracy, the promotion of human rights and inclusive economic growth and welfare. In implementing this agenda Germany has always been a reliable and predictable partner for Zambia.

There are no surprises as to what my country stands for or what we would like to accomplish in Zambia, in close cooperation with the Zambian Government and people. Germany’s agenda in this beautiful country is based on bilateral agreements with the Zambian Government. We do not impose anything, we do not have hidden agendas, but a common understanding about what we would like to achieve together.

Only a few months ago I signed a bilateral agreement with the Minister of Finance, which foresees an increase of German development cooperation assistance to Zambia by 50 percent. Our long term relationship with Zambia is guided by a close, trustful and open dialogue on issues of mutual interest and concern.

When it comes to the issue of changes of government: I agree it is entirely up to the Zambian people to elect the government of their choice. Germany has closely cooperated with all Zambian Governments since independence in 1964. Our interest is in seeing that the elections are free, fair and peaceful. And once the winner is proclaimed after free, fair, credible and peaceful elections, we stand ready to continue to support all efforts in Zambia aimed at reducing poverty, and further strengthening democracy and human rights.

These are the guiding principles and points of reference of Germany’s political agenda in this country, as also stressed by German Foreign Minister Steinmeier during his the recent visit to Lusaka in November 2015.As far as meetings with members of the opposition are concerned – should foreign diplomats in Zambia refrain from meeting with Hakainde Hichelema or Nevers Mumba or Edith Nawaki or with any other representative of the opposition? Again, I say “no”, we should not.

It is part of our mandate as diplomats to engage with all strands of Zambia’s society and provide our governments back home with a balanced picture of Zambia’s political, economic, social and cultural situation and vision. Zambia is not a totalitarian state where only one opinion – the government’s opinion – is permitted. Zambia is a democracy with a pluralistic society and a broad spectrum of competing ideas and political visions. As we see in all our countries, an opposition party today can be a government tomorrow.

My government in Berlin is keen to learn about the various views and agendas of Zambia’s many political actors. They might be, should the Zambian voters so decide, our future cooperating partners. This is why we diplomats not only interact with the Government but also with members of the opposition or civil society: to get first hand information about their views on the current situation of the country and to provide our own governments with a balanced and objective analysis of what is going on in Zambia.

We met with Michael Sata, for example, when he was in opposition. Now we meet with the current opposition parties. We do not take sides,we do not campaign, we gather information. This is not interference in Zambia’s domestic affairs, but an integral part of a diplomat’s job, and, as Foreign Minister Kalaba has rightly put it, a matter of routine in democratic countries.

On the issue of diplomats’ statements on human rights issues: The universal promotion of human rights is a major part of the foreign policy agenda of all our four countries. We are states parties to most international human rights treaties, and we play an active in the relevant United Nations organizations, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva, UNESCO in Paris and the General Assembly in New York.

On top of that, we have our bilateral development cooperation agreements, which make the protection and promotion of human rights an integral part of our political agenda. Again, discussing, even publicly, our respective human rights records is nothing to worry about. Given the universal character of human rights their protection and promotion is not a political choice we have but a legal obligation we should fulfil.

In this perspective we see ourselves as a part of the international human rights monitoring system in Zambia, just like Zambia should be a part of the international human rights monitoring system in Germany. I sometimes hear Zambians saying that they do not accept being lectured by the West on human rights; they refer to the human rights challenges in our own countries and suggest that we should mind our own business.

To these I say that our human rights policy is not a policy of preaching or lecturing. We are very well aware of the fact that richer and more developed countries do not have a monopoly on safeguarding human rights.

We have all homework to do and we will only live up to our role and standards if we accept that safeguarding human rights at home is everyday a new task. We therefore should all speak openly about human rights violations without sparing anybody’s feelings regardless of a country’s size and importance, even if that sometimes means criticizing neighbors, partners and friends.

The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States is a well-established and important part of international law. It is a corollary of every state’s right to sovereignty and territorial integrity, and it is enshrined in the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations. In order to become unlawful the interference must be forcible or dictatorial, or otherwise coercive.

Meeting with members of the opposition surely does not fall into this category; it is, to refer again to Foreign Minister Kalaba’s remarks, a matter of routine between mature democratic states and a normal exercise of a diplomat’s functions.

And speaking out on human rights issues in our respective countries is an obligation we all have. It reflects our commitment to help putting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into practice – for the benefit of the people of Germany and Zambia alike.

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