Peter Tatchell: For Robert Mugabe It Is Time to End the Culture of Impunity

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By Peter Tatchell

The Guardian, 7 December 2007

This weekend President Robert Mugabe will stride the stage at the EU-African Union Summit in Lisbon. He will be welcomed and feted, alongside all the other leaders of Africa and Europe.

For the people of Zimbabwe it will be a sickening spectacle to see their blood-soaked oppressor wined and dined by the Portuguese President, Aníbal António Cavaco Silva.

Mugabe is not the world’s only tyrant and not even the worst. Nevertheless, he has killed more black Africans than even the murderous apartheid regime in South Africa. His slaughter of 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland in the 1980s was the equivalent of a Sharpeville massacre every day for over nine months.

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Mugabe’s despotic regime is guilty of detention without trial, torture, rape, extra-judicial killings, media censorship, financial corruption, election fraud, mass starvation and the violent suppression of strikes and protests.

Instead of embracing President Mugabe as an honoured guest, the Portuguese government should instruct its police to arrest him on charges of torture.

It is time to end the culture of impunity, which allows tyrannical leaders to get away with human rights abuses. Torture is a crime under international law. Mugabe, and other torture-condoning despots, should be prosecuted. Giving them state immunity is collusion with their crimes.

There is evidence from Amnesty International and from Zimbabwean human rights groups
that President Mugabe and his government have sanctioned and colluded with acts of torture. He should be arrested and put on trial, in the same way that President Milosevic of Yugoslavia was tried in The Hague.

Portugal is legally obliged to enforce the UN Convention Against Torture 1984, which it has ratified and pledged to uphold.

The Convention Against Torture has universal jurisdiction. It allows any signatory state to arrest and put on trial any person who authorises, commits or acquiesces in the infliction of torture anywhere in the world. In other words, Mugabe can be lawfully arrested and tried in Portugal for crimes that he has aided and abetted in Zimbabwe.

Despite past legal rulings granting government leaders exemption from prosecution, the trend in international law is towards rejecting the right of Heads of State to enjoy absolute immunity for crimes against humanity, such as torture.

This legal evolution began with the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The signatory nations accepted that high state officials who stand accused of “offences against international morality” cannot plead that they are above the law. Article 227 of the Treaty set the precedent in international law that Heads of State are not immune from prosecution, when it arraigned the German Emperor, William II.

The 1946 Nuremberg Tribunal reiterated this precedent by ruling that the top Nazi leaders, including Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s successor as German leader, did not enjoy immunity for crimes against humanity. Article 7 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal stipulated that: “The official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.” Doenitz was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years jail.

Principle Three of the Nuremberg Principles, agreed by the nations of Europe as international law, declared: “The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law”.

For Portugal and the EU to now renege on the Nuremberg Principles is a monstrous betrayal of the millions who perished in the Holocaust and the millions more who sacrificed their lives to end the tyranny of the Third Reich.

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  1. Harriet

    Hi although I admit I have not fully comprehended your article (purely due to lack of time), I do feel the need to say that I agree with how much of the world does not seem to understand or even know about the destruction takinhg place in Zimbabwe. I am myself 18 and a student, and have admittedly myself not even known of the true extent of the problem in Zimbabwe, and in many ways it sickens me to think that this is also the case for many others. I believe the soft treatment of Mugabe (as you stated with countries brushing over human right laws…) is the main problem for this. People are too concern over keeping peace with fellow countries that the innocent lies of millions are thrown. I am myself taking A level drama, and I dont know if you would have heard of the practitioner Brecht, but he basically cast his plays around the importance of their messages rather than purely on aesthetic thrill. We have taken a play from Brechts ‘Fear and Misery of the Third Reich’, and have parralled Hitlers cruel regime to that of Mugabes. He believed that through historizising the play, away from the modern time, the audience would actively see how Mugabe is just as bad as Hitler to put it simply. I just thought as a campaigner it might be an idea to suggest this to theatre groups. Brecht was extremely famous for his anti-nazi projections. I wish you all the best.




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