Global Policy Forum

Will Mugabe Face the Same Fate as Taylor?


By Tim Rogers

Zimbabwe Independent
June 8, 2007

"I HAVE committed innumerable acts of cruelty and had an incalculable number of people killed, never knowing whether what I was doing was right or wrong. But I'm indifferent to what people think of me." So said Genghis Khan, universal ruler and leader of the Mongol hordes, in the 13th century. This is how casual dictators in the past used to kill and be arrogant about it.

The world from time immemorial to the present has seen some of the worst atrocities to have been committed by humankind. Barbarism and willful acts of mass-slaughter were the order of the day in ancient times. People used to take for granted massacres, torture, wild repression and looting, and other forms of random acts of outrage that led to mass suffering. Humanitarianism and human rights protection were not a universal code of civilization. Instead, barbarism was almost like the code of conduct.

However, while atrocities still continue today, there has been a dramatic change in how the world now views them. Dictators and their henchmen are slowly but surely being brought to book to account for their excesses. No matter what the flaws of the current international justice system are, it is important that leaders who abuse their power to commit willful murders are held to account. Political butchers, like any other, must be prosecuted. They should not be allowed to get away with murder!

This week the trial of Charles Taylor - former president of Liberia and the first former African leader to face an international court - opened in The Hague where he stands accused of war crimes during the diamond-fuelled conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone. True to form, Taylor behaved like other deposed tyrants when brought before the courts. He abstained from the first hearing and his lawyer argued that his client did so because he would not get a fair trial. But Taylor's antics were familiar - all dictators behave in a strange way when faced with justice. Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein are the most recent examples.

Human rights groups this week welcomed the trial of Taylor at a special court of international and Sierra Leonean judges as an important step in addressing the issue of impunity in Africa and elsewhere. The prosecutor opened the trial, expected to last for a year, in Taylor's absence by detailing 11 war crimes charges against the accused. Taylor is accused of forming a "joint criminal enterprise" by giving Sierra Leonean rebel groups weapons and training in return for access to the country's diamond fields.

It is alleged Taylor was complicit in the Revolutionary United Front rebel group's campaign against civilians in Sierra Leone, which included mutilation, usually chopping off of arms or hands, and the abduction of women and girls as sex slaves. Small boys were turned into child soldiers. Taylor, who ruled Liberia from 1997 to 2003, has pleaded not guilty, arguing he has immunity because he was a head of state at the time of the alleged crimes. But at an earlier hearing, the court invoked the precedents of the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials, and tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to rule immunity does not extend to crimes against humanity. Taylor faces up to life in prison if convicted. Britain has offered to jail him if convicted.

The Taylor precedent will send dictators quaking in their boots and on the run everywhere, specifically in Africa in this case. In Zimbabwe it would be interesting to see how the issue of human rights abuses by President Robert Mugabe's regime will be addressed. There has of late been contradictory messages from within the opposition groups on how to deal with the issue. Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition MDC leader, has been quoted as saying he wants Mugabe to get immunity for his alleged human rights abuses, particularly the Matabeleland atrocities.

Those who hold a different view have said Tsvangirai has no authority at all to say this, essentially when the victims have not been consulted. For Tsvangirai it could well have been a case of political expediency. Those who argue for Mugabe's trial say they want to ensure Zimbabwe draws a line on this to guarantee no recurrence of similar atrocities in the future. The issue is not up to Tsvangirai or Mugabe to decide but victims and international players. Mugabe has all but admitted the alleged atrocities - except their extent - after he publicly said they were an "act of madness".

The Matabeleland massacres - in which human rights groups say at least 20 000 civilians were murdered by Mugabe's state security machinery are one of the most horrific atrocities in post-colonial Africa. Last week a book on the massacres was launched in South Africa, bringing the issue back under the international spotlight and keeping it precariously hanging over Mugabe's head.

Britain's Foreign Office minister for Africa David Triesman on Monday warned that Mugabe risks the same fate as Taylor. "Mugabe is at one of those points where dictators have to consider whether if they press on they don't fall into the category of committing crimes against humanity on the sort of scale that the law proscribes," Triesman said. "Taylor presented quite a difficult target in the sense of coming to trial, but no impunity is a baseline we shouldn't cross. Those who commit terrible crimes will come to trial and be convicted and go to prison."

Now the question is: will Mugabe face the same fate as Taylor?

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Other International Criminal Court Investigations
More Information on the International Criminal Court
More Information on International Criminal Court Investigations
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Charles Taylor


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