Why the Past Is Not the Past in Zimbabwe

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bess Rothenberg Senior Program Officer, Africa at the International Women's Health Coalition

The Obama administration is encouraging Zimbabweans to move beyond the human rights violations committed by President Robert Mugabe and members of his political party ZANU-PF. As U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray stated in December: "The more people cling to historical symbols and dwell on the past the less progress there'll be made."

Meanwhile, South African President Jacob Zuma has recently taken a proactive role in resolving the government crisis in Zimbabwe. At times he seems willing to hold President Robert Mugabe and his party ZANU-PF accountable for extensive human rights violations. At others his is conciliatory, most recently arguing for the lifting of international sanctions against Mugabe and his allies.

Ambassador Ray's statement indicates a disheartening wrong turn at the wrong time by the ambassador and the Obama administration. Right now Zuma needs international support if he is to strengthen the position of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and return the country to rule of law. At this critical juncture, the US should urge President Zuma to condemn all rights violations by the Mugabe regime.

Ambassador Ray is wrong when he says that the human rights abuses of Mugabe's government are in the past. Physical scars are still healing from the mass rapes of women surrounding the June 2008 elections that Tsvangirai rightfully won. In a report by AIDS-Free World, one woman describes her experience of the politically inspired violence: "As they raped me they said I must join the ZANU-PF and defect from the MDC party. As this was happening, I could see and hear other women being raped around me simultaneously." The United States should press the Zimbabwean government to hold the orchestrators and perpetrators of this systematic violence accountable.

Counter to Ambassador Ray's claims, there is fresh evidence of ZANU-PF's continuing harassment of political opponents. MDC politician Roy Bennett sits in a squalid prison facing unfounded treason charges. The widely-respected politician was nominated by Tsvangirai to join the ZANU-PF/MDC coalition government in a cabinet position but is instead fighting a potential sentence of life imprisonment or death. This too should be condemned by the US government.

The violent seizures of land of white farmers and political opponents are also not a distant memory as ZANU-PF officials and mobs target the last 150 of an original 4000 white-owned farms and brutally force people from their lands. As Attorney General Johannes Tomana of ZANU-PF recently explained: "All the land in the country belongs to the government and as such no individual has the right to disobey a government directive to vacate such."

To gloss over these ongoing abuses as "historical symbols" is to give Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF a free pass to continue abusing their citizens while the unity government takes credit for a new era.

Zimbabwe may seem like a good place to try a less confrontational approach as the Obama administration seeks to engage recalcitrant governments that have not responded to sanctions. But the United States has an exceptional opportunity to take a tougher stance against Mugabe and see results. We can do this not by taking a unilateral stance but by supporting an African mandate.

Mugabe has often exploited any interference by the U.S. or Europe by calling it colonialism. He, like other dictators in Africa, has suggested that there should be "African" solutions to African challenges.

But Africa, like all other continents filled with diverse countries and peoples, does not speak with one voice. There have been respected African leaders who have spoken out against Mugabe (the late Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa was most explicitly critical). And there have been many who have stood by Mugabe, perhaps fearing the accusing finger would also point their own way.

The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has had primary responsibility for addressing the challenge of Zimbabwe since 2007. SADC appointed then-President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa to serve as mediator. He was ineffective due to his shared background with Mugabe as liberation fighters and Mbeki's fear that supporting the MDC might strengthen opposition parties in his own country.

In the end, Mbeki's sacrifice of rule of law and respect for human rights in Zimbabwe did not give him job security. Last year Jacob Zuma replaced him as president and mediator. Zuma is far from an untarnished moral leader, but he is less tied to Mugabe and his political interests align more with supporters of the MDC. In short, Zuma is better positioned to push Zimbabwe's toward democracy.

The Obama administration must clearly support Zuma as he begins this new phase of negotiations. Rather than distancing and diminishing human rights violations that define Mugabe's Machiavellian regime, U.S. Ambassador Ray should highlight and condemn them. He should push for accountability and demonstrable improvements in governance. He should show clear support for the SADC mandate as a means of ensuring rule of law in Zimbabwe. There have been too many lives lost, too many women raped, and too many opposition supporters terrorized in recent months and years. The U.S. should support Zimbabweans as they "cling" to these historical symbols.