It was lifetimes ago, way back in 1980, when Robert Mugabe was hailed as a revolutionary Moses delivering his people from the racist chains of Rhodesia's white government. In April of that year, the country was "given" its independence by the British. It was renamed "Zimbabwe." Blacks finally ruled. Mugabe was made Prime Minister. Bob Marley wrote and performed a (great) song.
Though Mugabe's had blood on his hands pretty much from the git, he'd been treated fairly well by the West's media (even with his Communist-trained troops). By letting the colonials keep their land, money, and privilege, Mugabe and Zimbabwe were held up as a possible model of future governance for apartheid-era South Africa. Zimbambwe was a place where everybody supposedly got along.
This "rainbow coalition" facade was blown out of the water in 2002, when our press reported taht Mugabe was expelling white farmers from their lands and giving the estates to former soldiers. Only then did we start hearing what a political mess Zimbabwe had actually been for decades.
Ever since, Mugabe Land has treated us to one shit-storm after another: hyper-inflation (I actually have a Zimbabwean $50 billion note worth about 10 cents U.S.); rampant violence; mass evictions; an election so fixed it took them a month to fix it; Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa only to be violently repulsed; mass starvation; and now cholera.
It now seems that the former Moses has turned into a modern-day Pharaoh, visiting plague upon plague upon his land in a stubborn refusal to abdicate power. The world wrings its hands, hopeless, every effort rebuffed, wondering why the man just doesn't leave Zimbabwe and give his people a chance to recover, to survive.
It seems like a reasonable enough question. The man's almost 85. He and his peeps have had damn near 30 years to rape and murder and steal all they can from their citizens. THey've probably pilfered billions of dollars on which to retire. Why can't Mugabe just do like so many of his despotic predecessors--buy his black ass a Swiss chalet in the Alps and just chill, worry-free? That's what I'd do. Who knows? Maybe that's what Mugabe himself would do--if it weren't for Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte and what happened to him on October 17, 1998.
That day the former Chilean dictator was arrested while receiving medical treatment in London on a Spanish provisional arrest warrant for murdering Spanish citizens in Chile during his reign. He was slapped with another arrest warrant from Spain five days later for forced disappearances, illegal detentions, and systematic torture and murder. Pinochet's own country signed an amnesty law, freeing Augusto and his cronies from prosecution. However, the Spanish judge in this case cited the principle of "universal jurisdiction"--the idea "that certain crimes are so egregious that they constitute crimes against humanity and can therefore be prosecuted in any court in the world."
Though Pinochet died before the issue of the legality of universal jurisdiction could be resolved, both the British and Spanish courts later ruled that it was indeed legit. The principle has not been utilized too often, but it has been utilized. And it did get Chad's former president, Hissene Habre, thrown in a Senegalese clink back in 2005. As Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, has said, "The detention of Augusto Pinochet heralded a turning point in the practice of universal jurisdiction by recognizing that heads of state are not above the law and could be arrested and tried internationally for crimes committed in their own country."
For Mugabe and his people, that means any judge in any court in the world can issue an arrest warrant, any cop on any corner can slap on the cuffs. They could possibly be hunted down no matter where they tried to hide.
Personally, I think all dictators, no matter who their allies are, should face judgement, and, if they got the Nuremberg treatment, so be it. However, people don't become ruthless, bloody dictators because their instinct for self-preservation is weak. They fight. Hard. Knowing that they will face judgment only means that today's dictators aren't going to quietly slip away like a Marcos or the Shah of Iran. They're not going to simply flee like an Amin or a Somoza. And, knowing that the Hague is in their future, they're damned sure not going to let themselves be voted out of office.
So, we can have "The Elders try to fly into Zimbabwe and cajole Mugabe et al. to leave the country. We can try to shame Sudan's regime with accusations of genocide. We can pound our breasts to a pulp over Burma and North Korea, condemn every two-bit dictator around the globe until we're blue in the face. Shame will not get these bastards to leave power. They have too much to lose and a nice, little jail cell waiting for them if they do.
The concept of universal jurisdiction was indeed a victory for the international human rights movement, but, for the people suffering under today's dictatorships, it's a Pyrrhic one at best. They can die reassured that one day their tormentor will go to court?! Maybe. But today, thousands of people are dying each week in Zimbabwe from starvation and cholera because Mugabe and his crew don't want to die in jail. If we want more to die, we only have to keep dangling universal jurisdiction before the octogenarian's eyes. However, if we want to save the lives of those innocent people, we will probably have to let Mugabe's people walk away with all their spoils without fear of prosecution. Until we make that painful decision, the man dies or is ousted, Mugabe's pestilence will most likely continue.