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Honor women by naming and shaming Zimbabwe

(Editor's note: The remarks by Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World, were made at International Women's Day events held by the United Nations Human Rights Council Panel moderated by Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a meeting of council diplomats in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday, March 8.)

Here in Geneva, at the Human Rights Council, on International Women’s Day, I have a case I want to make. It’s about Zimbabwe. It should have been made by the United Nations, but it hasn’t been made by the United Nations. Frankly, that’s unforgiveable.

Let me set it out. And please bear with me for a few minutes of background, leading to a decisive revelation.

In Zimbabwe in 2008, there were two elections; the second was a run-off, held because Robert Mugabe refused to concede defeat. They were held in March and June. Between the two elections, there was a terrible campaign of political rape orchestrated by President Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF.

The facts are not in dispute. My organization, AIDS-Free World, at the request of a group called The Girl-Child Network, decided to respond to the women who had been raped and take their stories by way of formal affidavits. On six separate occasions, accompanied by lawyers from pro bono law firms in Canada and the United States, we traveled to southern Africa and took the affidavits.

We gathered evidence from 70 women. Collectively, they were subjected to 380 separate rapes by 271 different men. In every single instance, the rapes were committed against women solely because they directly or indirectly supported the MDC, the opposition party.

The raping was diabolical, completely without conscience, merciless in its ferocity, committed by members of Mugabe’s Youth Corps and War Veterans. The pattern of rape was identical and uniform in every part of the country. It was carried out in every province. There was no doubt as to its orchestration. There was no doubt that it constituted crimes against humanity.

It was rape as a strategy of politics, no different in its execution and result than rape as a strategy of conflict. It was meant to terrorize the opposition, to destroy communities and families that harbored the opposition, to force women to vote for ZANU-PF, or to frighten women, their family members and neighbors away from the polls altogether. The fact that women might emerge as HIV-positive from such horror, mattered not at all.

It is not excessive to say that it was the plan of a madman.

AIDS-Free World meticulously documented the saga and produced a comprehensive report titled “Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.” We launched it in Johannesburg in December of 2009.

It garnered significant coverage in southern Africa, and from that day to this we’ve been telling anyone who would listen to us, within the United Nations and outside of the United Nations, that the international community must intervene because this strategy of rape is historic and it is ongoing. Women will be subject to terrifying sexual assault again during the next elections, expected to be held later this year.

We went so far as to prepare a case to be brought before the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in South Africa to take advantage of South Africa’s ability to use the legal principle of “universal jurisdiction” – that is, bringing those accused of crimes against humanity to justice through courts outside their own countries, because the crimes offend us all, and their own countries won’t prosecute. We were frustrated in that objective by the response to another case, also against Mugabe and Zimbabwe, alleging crimes of torture in 2007. The application of universal jurisdiction is stalled in that case, because the NPA argued that it didn’t have jurisdiction. The decision was appealed. There was no point in our proceeding until the question of the NPA’s jurisdiction was resolved.

Interestingly, the High Court of Gauteng has agreed to hear the appeal at the end of this month, so we will file our rape dossier before the NPA by May.

But while that may get some of the known perpetrators into jail should they cross into South Africa, the women who have been raped, will never receive justice, and those who most certainly will be raped in advance of the next election, will not be safe until the international community intervenes.

AIDS-Free World had resolved to apply pressure in every possible way to forestall a repetition of election-related raping later this year. But we have frankly felt deeply frustrated and depressed by the impunity that rests like an impenetrable halo over Robert Mugabe’s head.

Why will no one take him on? The days of Zimbabwe’s role as a Front-Line state against apartheid are long, long gone. Everyone — every country on the Security Council — knows of the sexual violence; knows what is being done to the women of Zimbabwe who dare to support the opposition; knows that a brutal, insensate regime is in power in the country. It appears to make no difference.

In the councils of the United Nations — indeed, here in the affairs of the Human Rights Council, where Zimbabwe has recently undergone its Universal Periodic Review and appeared before the Treaty Body for CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of ALL Forms of Discrimination Against Women just last month — it is de rigueur to rail against dozens of countries for violence against women, but Zimbabwe is always exempt.

On this International Women’s Day, we have to resolve to break the pattern. Incredibly enough, the chink in the armor of Zimbabwe’s impunity has finally been exposed.

Let me explain how it plays out.

Back in December of 2010, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1960. It was focused entirely on sexual violence in situations of armed conflict, bemoaning the extremely slow progress made in bringing any of the perpetrators to justice. In order to attempt to correct the situation, and in response to Resolutions 1820 and 1888 also dealing explicitly with sexual violence in conflict, the Security Council asked the Secretary-General, in his annual reports on the issue, to include “detailed information on parties to armed conflict that are credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for rape or other forms of sexual violence,” and to list the parties in an annex.

It became known as the “Naming and Shaming” resolution. There’s no question: it was important progress.

In January of this year, as requested, the Secretary-General submitted his report titled “Conflict-related sexual violence”. And it named names. It went through country after country — Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan (Darfur) — identifying the groups and sometimes individual assailants who were responsible for campaigns of rape between December 2010 and November 2011.

The next section predictably deals with “conflict-related sexual violence in post-conflict situations”, again naming names, or discussing the situation in detail, and citing Central African Republic, Chad, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste.

As we moved through the reading of the report, my colleagues and I were tormented by the all-consuming focus on “sexual violence in conflict” that seemed to preclude the inclusion of Zimbabwe. How could we explain to the world, and to the Secretary-General that sexual violence in conflict didn’t always require warring parties? How could we explain that sexual violence driven by political motives was simply a different kind of conflict, of similar scale and import, needing equally to be addressed.

And then we came to page 21!

The heading is “Sexual Violence in the context of elections, political strife and civil unrest.” I was stunned.

The first paragraph couldn’t have been more explicit:

“Situations of civil and political unrest or instability, including pre- and post-electoral violence, where reports suggest that sexual violence was used to serve political ends and to target opponents, are relevant for the purpose of reporting under resolution 1960. Sexual violence employed as part of the repertoire of political repression needs to be monitored as a security threat, as a context in which sexual violence amounting to a crime against humanity may occur, and as a potential conflict situation.”

This is the exact definition of Zimbabwe in 2008, and what undoubtedly will be Zimbabwe in 2012. So which countries does the report name? Guinea, Kenya, Egypt and Syria.

What in heaven’s name is going on? AIDS-Free World was appalled by the post-election rape that haunted Kenya; collectively, we’ve spent months on it; assigned an intern to gather material; helped to design a conference that addressed it; and the co-Director of AIDS-Free World and I spent a week in Nairobi interviewing between fifteen and twenty activists, mostly from women’s groups, shortly after the post-election violence.

What they reported was awful; but the scale of the raping didn’t begin to approximate Zimbabwe. The Secretary-General’s report ends the section on Kenya with these words: “Generally, Kenya remains peaceful but the political environment is expected to continue to be charged as the country heads for the next general elections in 2012. Accordingly, there is continued monitoring and peace-building initiatives … in view of the potential for repeated violence and population displacement.”

If Kenya remains ominous for the repeat of sexual violence in 2012, then Zimbabwe is many times more threatening. And as bad as things have been and are in Egypt, Guinea, and yes, even Syria, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe beats them all for the scale of repression and rape throughout the 32 years he has been leading the country.

Why is Zimbabwe missing from the list? Why does the Secretariat allow it to happen, especially when a section of the Secretary-General’s own report cries out for the inclusion of Zimbabwe? The report is seen as a document that will change the course of history for women. It was debated by the Security Council for the first time just two weeks ago. Any analysis of the language of the report must conclude that Zimbabwe is the very embodiment of what’s being reviled, and is now definitively within the orbit of the actions to be taken on sexual violence by the United Nations.

So I must ask: why does the Security Council call for naming and shaming and then observe the omission of Zimbabwe without so much as a word? Nor, I might add, a word from the Human Rights Council. What hold does Robert Mugabe have on the Permanent Members of the Security Council, or on the member governments of the Human Rights Council? Does no one recognize the blow to the public credibility of the UN in both New York and Geneva when such obvious matters of principle are discarded?

It can’t be allowed to go on. Zimbabwe is now — by fact, by logic, by circumstance, by morality, by behavior — an organic extension of the Secretary-General’s report. It’s a travesty that of all the countries named, Zimbabwe is missing.

It smacks of a dreadful hypocrisy; it’s an unsettling glimpse into what might be called the collusion of camaraderie … that cozy male bonding when everyone agrees, behind closed doors, to be silent. It shows unsettling contempt for the women of Zimbabwe who have been raped by President Mugabe’s henchmen.

Someone has to correct this wrong. Neither the Secretary-General himself nor a single member of the Security Council can explain or defend it. Not after the words in the report.