May 12, 2007 / 2:38 AM / 11 years ago

Zimbabwe chosen to chair key UN environment body

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Zimbabwe, widely criticized for mismanaging its economy, was elected on Friday as head of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the main U.N. inter-governmental body on the environment.

Despite objections from Western nations, the 53-nation commission voted Zimbabwe’s environment and tourism minister, Francis Nheme, as chairman to replace oil-producer Qatar.

The post rotates among regions and Africa nominated Nheme as chairman of the commission.

Both the United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe for human rights abuses.

European Union nations led objections to Zimbabwe’s candidacy this week as well as to the commission’s entire two-week session, which they contend had degenerated into scripted speeches without setting targets to reduce global warming and fund alternative energy sources.

As a result the EU prevented a final outcome document from being approved.

On Zimbabwe, the vote by secret ballot among the 50 nations casting ballots late on Friday was 26 in favor to 21 against, with three abstentions.

The U.N. conference aimed to produce policies to advance long-term energy solutions that can contribute to economic and social development while protecting the environment. The object was to persuade developing nations to leapfrog past industrial countries’ dependence on fossil fuel.

Germany’s environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, noted that the EU had imposed travel sanctions, among other penalties, against officials in President Robert Mugabe’s government.

“It would not be possible for us to invite the next chair, if it is from the government of Zimbabwe or to have contacts with the chair,” said Gabriel, whose country holds the current presidency of the 25-nation EU.

Zimbabwe’s U.N. ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku, however, asked the BBC, “What has sustainable development to do with human rights?”

Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, with inflation running at 2,000 percent. Mugabe’s policies, including the seizure of white-held farms to resettle landless blacks, are often blamed.

Mugabe, the country’s sole ruler since independence, denies mismanaging the economy and blames Western sanctions for the state of Zimbabwe’s economy.

On Friday, Tom Casey, the U.S. State Department deputy spokesman, said: “We don’t think that Zimbabwe would be a particularly effective leader of this body.”

He said development in the southern African country has “been going in only one direction — and it’s backwards.”

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