Friday, July 23, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Zimbabwe?

We've blogged before about Zimbabwe's brutal rape camps and the dearth of international attention paid to these horrifying political crimes. That post was written nearly two years ago, when AIDS-Free World began its investigation of ZANU-PF's policy of systematic rape of political opposition. After an eighteen-month study, the final report, Electing To Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, was released last December. It's an important and shocking read that calls to mind the rape camps of the former Yugoslavia.
So why not a similar international legal response to these brutal crimes? That's the question asked this week by AIDS-Free World's Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Lewis's group has called for the International Criminal Court to investigate. Specifically, Lewis has promised to present a legal dossier to the Office of the Prosecutor next month in hope that they will pursue crimes against humanity proceedings, presumably against Robert Mugabe and the Joint Operations Committee that is responsible for state security in Zimbabwe. It's quite a bold bid to overcome the silence and impunity that have shrouded Mugabe and his ZANU-PF followers, and even as one who's often skeptical of imposing universalist norms from above, I couldn't help but cheer on this particular effort. (Lewis has also called on the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to take action against the perpetrators of these crimes, but given their consistent unwillingness to utter even a critical word against Mugabe, I can't imagine his hopes are high.)
Though the potential prosecution raises fascinating issues, from legal (command responsibility) to political (indicting a second sitting African head of state), this post focuses on the gender dimensions of such a move. At first glance, it seems all upside -- the possibility of of bringing greater gender balance to the docket and jurisprudence of the ICC, and demonstrating that gender-based violence will be taken as seriously as other crimes. But it's important not to forget that this dismantling of one hierarchy obscures another; namely, the elevation of "political" crimes perpetrated by organized actors over "opportunistic" crimes enabled by the breakdown of the rule of law. Case in point: Zimbabwe has shockingly high rates of child rape, with a single pediatric clinic in Harare seeing 30,000 sexually abused children over the past four years. Despite their prevalence, such crimes fall outside the scope of the ICC statute, providing an important reminder that a greater focus on international criminal law may relegate to the back seat the suffering of women and children from the increase in domestic violence and child abuse that often results from political conflict.


Jean said...

Hard to imagine the ICC doing anything since Zimbabwe is not a state party to the Rome Statute

Jaya Ramji-Nogales said...

Thanks for raising this important point, Jean. I agree with you that Zimbabwe's unlikely to accept jurisdiction, which means that the ICC prosecutor's office may not be the most fruitful place to direct legal dossiers and other efforts to ensure accountability. The AIDS-Free World report suggests that in the absence of ratification or acquiescence to jurisdiction, the UN Security Council could refer the matter to the prosecutor under Chapter VII, as it did with the Darfur case (though the report shares your view that it's hard to imagine that a Security Council referral will be politically viable). But even if it's a non-starter, I think that the campaign to apply international criminal law here is an intriguing and important development.