It's a rare moment when three African nations, in an effort to forestall violence, block a shipment of weapons to a neighboring country in political turmoil. It's perhaps even a historic development when those weapons were sold by a great power and were bound for a government that is not under United Nations sanctions and has every legal right to buy arms -- though no moral right to do so. So let us praise the courageous peoples of South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia for refusing to allow the Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang to unload its deadly cargo: 77 tons of rockets, mortars and ammunition, manufactured by a Chinese state-owned enterprise, purchased by the government of Zimbabwe and virtually certain to be used by President Robert Mugabe to repress his opposition following an election that he may have lost.
Mugabe's neighboring leaders had been loath to criticize the former independence fighter even as his reign descended from the merely bad into the abominable. South African President Thabo Mbeki did not ask Mugabe to release the disputed election tallies until his own country was flooded with refugees from Mugabe's violent crackdown. But if Mbeki sympathized with Mugabe, the dockworkers of Durban identified with Mugabe's victims. They understood that sending the weapons to Zimbabwe would have been the moral equivalent of shipping machetes to Rwanda in 1994, and they refused to unload the cargo. Next, an Anglican archbishop asked a South African court not to allow the weapons to be transported to land-locked Zimbabwe. The court agreed, and the Chinese freighter, by now dubbed the "Ship of Shame," departed Durban. It was refused entry by Mozambique and Zambia.
The hosts of the Beijing Olympics should bring home the freighter and its unwanted cargo and reflect on whether China intends to become a compassionate global citizen or the very type of capitalist predator it fought a revolution to defeat.
What is extraordinary about this incident is that African civil society -- journalists and judges, human rights groups and unions, backed by U.S. and British diplomats wisely working behind the scenes -- made it palatable for these African governments to do the right thing. They have shown that simple acts can help protect civilians against war crimes and crimes against humanity, a responsibility that was enshrined in a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution but is often seen as impossible to uphold. This is the best kind of conflict prevention.