Why Zimbabwe's President Mugabe was named UN 'tourism envoy'

Zimbabwe's President Mugabe, who signed an agreement to co-host a UN tourism conference, now has an honorary position as envoy, despite a long record of human rights abuses.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe follows proceedings at celebrations to mark 32 years of independence of Zimbabwe, in Harare, in this April 18 file photo. Mugabe has just been named the UN’s international envoy for tourism, despite a long record of human rights abuses.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has just been named the UN’s international envoy for tourism. It’s a special recognition for Mr. Mugabe’s agreement to co-host, with Zambia, a United Nations World Tourism Organization general assembly next August.

At a ceremony in Victoria Falls, Mugabe said the agreement between Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the United Nations is of “historical importance.”
 “For our people, the signing of the agreement attests to our commitment, our readiness to welcome the entire tourism fraternity to our countries,” Mugabe was quoted by the independent Zimbabwe newspaper NewsDay as saying. “For the UN World Tourism Organisation, on the other hand, the signatures testify to the confidence and trust that was bestowed upon us.”

That Mugabe, a man who faces a European Union travel ban and economic sanctions because of his repression and torture of opposition activists, would be named a UN envoy for tourism has drawn a certain amount of criticism.

Mr. Mugabe’s ruling party is accused of arresting, detaining, and in some cases killing members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change during the 2008 national elections. He later formed a coalition government with the MDC, after an 11-month stalemate in which the national currency became worthless and inflation soared to more than 1 million percent.

Mugabe is also blamed for a violent land-reclamation campaign, in which armed thugs stormed and took over the property of white commercial farmers, as well as the Gukurahundi counterinsurgency campaign in the early 1980s against the rival ZAPO militant group in the Matabeleland region, which killed as many as 20,000 people.

So Mugabe’s selection as UN tourism envoy is not an obvious choice.

At the Victoria Falls ceremony, where Mugabe and Zambian President Michael Sata signed an agreement to hold the UNWTO assembly, the UN’s Taleb Rifai told a gathering, “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination."

Zimbabwe once had a thriving tourism industry, both before and after the fall of the racist white Rhodesian government to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF majority government in 1980. Then, tourists flocked to see the gorgeous Victoria Falls or trundled around game parks to see lions, elephants, and rhinos in their native environment. Economic collapse and political instability changed all that, and Mugabe’s hanging on to power for 32 years has given the local tourism industry little incentive to grow. A UN conference will certainly add a little jingle in a few pockets, but once the suited diplomats leave, there is little indication that Zimbabwe’s tourism industry is heading toward a revival.

Members of the MDC, an opposition party that now shares power with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, condemned the UN’s honoring of Mugabe.

"I can't see any justification for the man being an 'ambassador,' " Kumbi Muchemwa, an MDC spokesman told the Guardian newspaper. "An ambassador for what? The man has blood on his hands. Do they want tourists to see those bloody hands?”

Mugabe's spokesman Rugare Gumbo told the Telegraph that the "situation on the ground in Zimbabwe is not as bad as portrayed."

There have been rumors for years that Mugabe would like to step down from power, and pave the way for a peaceful succession for his ZANU-PF to remain in power, so the seeming rehabilitation of Mugabe by various UN agencies could be seen as a gentle nudge toward honorable retirement.

Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Europe and the US to lift economic sanctions and travel bans against Mugabe and his inner circle of supporters because all three of the major parties in Zimbabwe now oppose them. Lifting sanctions would allow Zimbabwe to hold a fresh round of elections, perhaps by early next year, Ms. Pillay said.

"I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions on Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least until the conduct and outcome of the elections and related reforms are clear," Pillay told journalists on May 25, following a five day trip to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

Could a few honorary degrees, an honorary ambassadorship, and a few thousand tourists persuade Mugabe to step down from power? Perhaps. It’s certainly a cheaper alternative to war.

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