Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Uses UN Speech to Attack West

The president’s address to UN General Assembly followed close on a successful constitutional deal backed by the opposition.
By Mike Nyoni
President Robert Mugabe is probably as reviled in the West as he is revered in parts of the Third World, but in both spheres he has proved himself a master politician.



United States president George Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair have accused Mugabe’s neighbours, especially South African president Thabo Mbeki, of failing to adopt a sufficiently strong stance against Zimbabwe’s errant regime. In their view, this has exacerbated the current crisis.



In fact, Mugabe has been accused of bullying his peers in the Southern African Development Community and African Union, and some believe this is why they have not openly attacked him for human rights violations and brutal treatment of political opponents.



Mbeki’s much-maligned “quiet diplomacy” has been ascribed as much to fear of the 83-year old Zimbabwean leader as to active approval of his regime.



The patient “quiet diplomacy” that Mbeki has applied as the SADC’s appointed mediator in the Zimbabwe crisis put a spring in Mugabe’s step as he went to attend the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.



Thanks to Mbeki’s efforts to broker peace between ZANU-PF and the MDC, Mugabe secured a deal between the two parties which some analysts believe could bring an end to political violence in the country.



The constitutional amendment bill passed unanimously by ZANU-PF and MDC members of the lower house of parliament on September 20 and by the Senate five days later, allows Mugabe to effectively anoint a successor if and when he steps down. At the same time, Mugabe has pledged a new constitution before joint presidential and parliamentary elections in March next year.



The deal provoked accusations of treachery from the MDC’s civil-society allies, who believe the opposition party has compromised the ideal of a total constitutional overhaul in exchange for some token changes.



“Mugabe literally stole the thunder from his critics at the United Nations when he managed to strike a deal with his opponents just before he left home,” said a politics lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, who asked to remain anonymous.



“It was as if Thabo Mbeki had timed the announcement for this occasion, to give his quiet diplomacy a place in history. In the end, everyone believed Mugabe when he said Zimbabweans know how to deal with their problems without meddling from the West.”



Reacting to a September 26 speech at the UN General Assembly in which President Bush accused him of tyranny, Mugabe poured scorn on the charge, instead accusing his adversary of violating the UN’s founding charter by invading Iraq.



In a speech on September 27, Mugabe told the General Assembly that the SADC had managed to secure an agreement on the constitutional amendment bill without resorting to the kind of sanctions that Britain and its allies have applied to Zimbabwe.



“We are Zimbabweans and we know how to deal with our problems,” he said. “We do not deserve sanctions. We want to be left alone. We will interact with those in our region and those in organs to which we belong.”



Selectively citing examples of US behaviour abroad, Mugabe gave his audience a convincing portrayal of himself as a Third-World crusader, rather than the villain that Bush had accused him of being.



“He [President Bush] kills in Iraq. He kills in Afghanistan,” said Mugabe. He cited the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where he said US soldiers routinely violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with impunity.



“The national laws of the people there don’t apply,” said Mugabe. “At the concentration camp, international law does not apply.”



He accused the US of defying both the UN and international opinion when it invaded Iraq together with Britain, a charge which will resonate with many countries in the West as well as the Third World.



“Mugabe’s examples of US violations of human rights are carefully choreographed to cause maximum damage, without Bush being able to rebut them with equally graphic examples against Mugabe,” commented a political analyst in Harare.



“While the world can produce pictures of [MDC leader Morgan] Tsvangirai’s bleeding face as examples of human rights violations, Mugabe retorts by pointing to US prisons teeming with blacks for violating the law. Mugabe says he is enforcing the law against public demonstrations, a defence which Bush cannot raise in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq, which should be sovereign states.”



Another analyst who requested anonymity agreed that after Iraq and Afghanistan, the US had lost its ability to intervene in cases like Zimbabwe.



“It is now very difficult for the US to take decisive action against dictators like Mugabe,” he said. “US authority and its moral failures are breeding more demagogues around the globe from North Korea to Iran.”



He said Mugabe had carefully highlighted “well-documented acts of democratic negation by the West which exposed their lip-service to human rights”.



“There is no doubt that Mugabe is intolerant of dissent - if not an outright dictator - but Bush should be the last person to accuse him of human rights violations, given the US’s military record in Europe and the Middle East where foreigners are tortured in secret army camps without anyone raising a voice.”



He said such actions lent credence to claims by populist leaders such as Mugabe, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran that they are being victimised for trying to protect their countries’ natural resources.



Mugabe summed up this perception at the UN when he said, “I am termed a dictator because I have rejected this supremacist view and frustrated [the] neo-colonialists.”



The West and human rights groups accuse Mugabe of plunging the country into poverty after he seized white-owned commercial farms in 2000. Since then, Zimbabwe has moved from a food exporter to the region to a net importer.



Mugabe blames the crisis on western sanctions imposed after his disputed re-election in 2002.



Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.