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Indict Zimbabwe's demagogue
Mark S. Ellis
December 27, 2005

Zimbabweans have been gallant in their struggle to try to topple Robert Mugabe and rescue their country from despair. But Mugabe's state machine is simply too powerful and corrupt to be defeated by weakened and demoralized citizens. The escalating humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe requires an immediate and forceful international response.

Mugabe must be held accountable for the crimes he has committed. A UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court to investigate Mugabe and his regime, similar to the referral over Sudan's Darfur situation, is the most appropriate and effective response.

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, was established on July 1, 2002, as the first permanent international court to investigate and try individuals for the most heinous violations of international humanitarian law. A referral to the ICC to immediately investigate Zimbabwe would fall squarely within the powers of the Security Council to decide what measures should be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Exercising its wide discretionary powers, the Security Council could specifically name Mugabe as an ongoing threat to the peace and security of the region and authorize an ICC investigation, even though Zimbabwe has refused to accept the court's jurisdiction.

Would an investigation for crimes against humanity stop Mugabe? Nobody knows. But we have to try, because the Zimbabwean government's systematic human rights abuses have reached staggering proportions.

Under the guise of creating order in the cities, Mugabe's government has razed informal suburban townships that housed more than a million people. Without notice or judicial proceedings, tens of thousands of homes, classrooms, clinics and businesses have been bulldozed or set on fire, forcing their residents onto the streets. The government has provided no alternative housing, nor has it provided aid for the 700,000 people who are now displaced.

Crimes against humanity include acts committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against any civilian population - including the deprivation of housing and forceful transfer of a population, calculated to bring about the destruction of a targeted political group, which is the case in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe's razing of the townships is the culmination of the ruling ZANU-PF Party's anti-democratic assault. In rural areas, ZANU-PF is able to control voting through village leaders using a widespread system of patronage. But the residents of the townships and cities, who have access to the news media and are able to mobilize, form the backbone of Zimbabwe's opposition. Not content with shutting down the opposition media and targeting its leaders, the government is now is literally dispersing opposition supporters.

There is overwhelming evidence that Mugabe's government has committed other crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, rape, abduction and torture.

Zimbabwe is a country in ruins; its people are destitute. The unemployment rate is more than 70 percent and the annual inflation rate is more than 500 percent. Since 1998, annual foreign investment inflows have dropped from $436 million to less than $5 million.

The rural population suffers from increasing starvation, which is now being exacerbated by the influx of people displaced from the townships. Nearly 40 per cent of Zimbabweans are malnourished, with 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line of $1 a day. In the span of only 15 years, the average life expectancy has declined from 60 years to 30 years.

To make the situation worse, many of those who have been left on the streets suffer from AIDS. The World Health Organization reports that one in four Zimbabweans has the AIDS virus. In a recent demolition campaign, an AIDS orphanage was bulldozed. The independent news media have been shut down; the judiciary has been compromised; social services have collapsed and elections are rigged.

Mugabe is a demagogue whose egregious crimes have, to date, gone unpunished - much to the consternation of Zimbabweans. It is time for the international community to act, by using the "trigger mechanism" at the UN Security Council to initiate proceedings before the International Criminal Court.

An indictment by the ICC would turn Mugabe into a pariah within the context of international law: An international arrest warrant would be issued, and all UN member states would be obliged to detain Mugabe if he stepped outside the borders of Zimbabwe.

A referral to the ICC would also send an unmistakable message to the beleaguered citizens of Zimbabwe that Mugabe will ultimately be held accountable for his crimes. There is no statute of limitations for those, like Mugabe, who commit atrocities against their own citizens. It is time to bring him to justice.

*Mark S. Ellis is executive director of the International Bar Association, London.

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