Windhoek - Zimbabwe's refusal to obey a regional court which rejected President Robert Mugabe's land reforms in favour of a group of white farmers looks set to go unpunished as a summit wraps up Tuesday.
The tribunal of the Southern African Development Community, whose leaders are meeting in Namibia's capital Windhoek, ruled in 2008 that 78 white farmers could keep their land, saying they were unfairly targeted due to their race.
Zimbabwe has refused to respect the ruling even though Harare has signed the treaty creating the court, which has no power to enforce its rulings except through decisions of a summit.
"There is no possibility of punitive measures like sanctions," said Dirk Kotze, a political analyst from the University of South Africa.
"Expressing their disappointment is the furthest they can go," he said. "Anything further would be punitive and it has to be weighed against other political considerations such as maintaining unity in the government."
As leaders from around the region wrapped up talks Tuesday evening, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba said the SADC needed to impose its mandate more firmly.
"There are still constraints and challenges to implement goals set by our common agenda and keeping with timelines," he said.
"Not improving on that will put in question our commitment and it might create frustration among the people in our region." Mugabe, who at 86 is Africa's oldest leader with three decades in power, formed a unity government last year with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, now the prime minister.
About 4 000 white farmers have been forced off their land in a violent and politically charged campaign launched by Mugabe in 2000.
Around 400 white farmers remain in Zimbabwe, and the chaotic resettlement process slashed food production, making the nation chronically dependent on foreign handouts.
Zimbabwe insists that the SADC tribunal treaty was never ratified but critics contend that signing it was enough. The group's leaders are expected to simply punt the issue to their next summit in 2011.
"To find a solution, SADC asked its justice ministers to make a report, but it wasn't completed. Any decision will simply be postponed indefinitely," said one official at the summit, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Tougher on Madagascar
The report was meant to be presented at the summit, but regional leaders fear the contentious issue could split the bloc, which has struggled to act with a united voice on Zimbabwe, even at the height of electoral violence in 2008.
"The rule of law in the SADC countries depends on this," said Kallie Kriel of the South African rights group AfriForum, a mainly white organisation.
"If the rulings of SADC institutions are not adhered to, the credibility of SADC itself is at risk."
South Africa's courts have registered the judgement, leading to the seizure of Zimbabwe government properties for auction to help cover the farmers' legal costs.
Zimbabwe's political feud has delayed progress on electoral reforms. The power-sharing pact had called for a referendum on a new constitution for last month, but the process has barely gotten off the ground.
SADC has been much tougher on Madagascar, which was suspended from the bloc over the March 2009 army-backed ouster of resident Marc Ravalomanana by the former mayor of the capital Andry Rajoelina.
The leaders were also expected to be briefed on a new agreement signed last week between Rajoelina and 99 political parties, including Ravalomanana's, setting out a new election calendar.