It is mid-January 2012 in the city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, the second largest city after the capital Harare, and three women are rounded up in a police van after being accused of “standing” near a mall. They are known by the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) police force as members of WOZA, or the Women of Zimbabwe Arise movement, which was formed in 2003 and is led by Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu. Throughout the day, a total of 17 WOZA members are picked up, detained and assaulted by local police officers.
“How do you forget a plastic bag over your head?” asks leader Mahlangu in a report by SW Radio Africa, as she describes the experience of one female member who was suffocated by officers by placing a bag over her head and asking if she was “prepared to talk.” It’s an unnerving question and one that can only truly be answered by someone who has endured such torture. More chills run down the spine after learning that despite tendencies toward crimes against humanity, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) appointed Zimbabwean president and human rights violator, Robert Mugabe, 88, as a “global leader for tourism” on May 29.
Without a hint of irony, the UNWTO anointed Mugabe, who is currently under a travel ban forbidding him from entering the United States and the European Union, as an “ambassador” of world tourism. The idyllic coastlines of Spain and Italy, the breathtaking landscape of southern France, the canals of Amsterdam and the bustling cityscapes of London are only a few of the majestic and world-class adventure spots that Mugabe has been picked to promote in his new role, although he’ll never see the sites himself as he is denied entry to each and every one of those locations due to his regime’s complicity in massive human rights violations.
Mugabe has been the leader of the fragile African country since 1987, and he has subsequently dragged the former British colony into disparaging economic turmoil. Always keen to promote his own interests, Mugabe sent Zimbabwean forces to participate in the brutal civil war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which is widely considered to have resulted in the most casualties since World War II with upwards of 5.4 million killed according to conservative estimates.
Undeterred by such things as base facts, the UNWTO invited him, alongside his equally ruthless political ally, Zambian President Michael Sata, 75, to be a leader of the global tourism industry. Other tourism appointees include the likes of celebrity do-gooders Drew Barrymore, David Beckham and Orlando Bloom; and much like the old lesson learned from Sesame Street, one of those things is not like the other. Mugabe and Sata signed the ambassador deal in Victoria Falls on Tuesday, and they will co-host the global tourism gathering in August of 2013.
The decision has been met with criticism by those who believe Mugabe as a tourism leader is an affront to the entire institution and to human rights in general. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has publicly declared that Canada is withdrawing from the World Tourism body solely because of the invitation extended to Mugabe. The UN has countered critics by stating that the alleged ethnic cleanser has no official title or power, and the organization’s co-ordinator of communications, Sandra Caravao, said in an article published by the New York Daily News that it was simply an “open letter” to encourage the leaders’ support for tourism “as a means to foster sustainable development in their countries to the benefit of their people.”
Even with a history of brutal dictatorship, murder, kidnapping and the forced starvation of his people, Mugabe has managed to capture the hearts and minds of the UNWTO, who have entrusted him as a leader of “economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability,” which are the manifest goals of the organization as stated on their official website.
The reality for the people of Zimbabwe is systematic intimidation and suffering. Only last week Cephas Magura, a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was reported murdered by stoning at the hands of ZANU-PF forces; afterwards, his body was dumped carelessly in the streets, as if this man had been merely a piece of trash instead of a human being. MDC MP Piniel Denga said that people are afraid to come forward as witnesses to the murder, due to “fear of the unknown.”
Those fears are not in vain after seeing the destruction brought on by the ZANU-PF in their attempt to thwart dissidents. Gibb Chigoro, the first MDC member to win a council seat in Mashonaland Central, was beaten in front of his mother and family with iron bars in 2008 before being dragged to a clearing in the village where an unknown gunman executed him.
Mrs. Chigoro, the 70-year-old mother of Gibb, was also beaten with iron bars and forced to drink industrial weed killer, which burned off her lips and mutilated her right cheek. She can no longer eat solid food and lives out the rest of her days surviving off a saline drip. As reported by The Independent, Mrs. Chigoro recounts what the men said to her as they beat her, “‘Did you think you could get away with betraying your country? You, old woman, did you think you’d get away with this?’ I saw them shoot my son again before I fainted.”
Before you start to think about it too hard though, about the horrifying indignities and violations and about the seemingly insurmountable odds it would take to defeat such treachery, Stephen Colbert provided some comic relief when he pointed out on his May 30th episode of The Colbert Report that Mugabe may just, in fact, be the perfect choice for a global tourism leader.
As Colbert has it, Mugabe’s “brutal regime has inspired thousands to get out of Zimbabwe and see the world…often in the middle of the night without even packing!” Colbert’s sell-off Zimbabwe vacation perks include:
“There’s no Zimbab-way you can resist!”
Secretary-General Taleb Rifai of the World Tourism Organization has been quoted as saying in Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper that “I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country…by coming here; it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is safe.”
Perhaps the man is simply suffering from semantic satiation, the phenomenon when a word or phrase temporarily loses its meaning due to repeated exposure, like when you say the words ambassador, vacation, Mugabe in one statement over and over again, only to realize they have ceased to make any sense. Thus one begins the process of attempting to understand the bewildering appointment of such a man to such a prestigious position by the political body in charge of upholding worldwide humanitarian rights and dignities.