Human rights lawyers in Zimbabwe have had their hands full with the past week’s abductions of prominent defenders like attorney Zacharia Nkomo and Zimbabwe Peace Project director Jestina Mukoko, who were forcibly seized from their homes during early morning hours by security agents of President Robert Mugabe’s government. The crackdown, in combination with the post-election political stalemate and a burgeoning cholera outbreak, has drawn a steadily growing call by world leaders for President Mugabe to step down, and critics outside the country are seeking intervention by the United Nations.
The US-based organization AIDS-Free World has urged the UN Security Council to call an emergency session to stop President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF supporters from waging what it calls a second campaign of rape and sexual torture designed to crush the political opposition. The group’s co-director Stephen Lewis, a former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, says it sees a correlation between last week’s disappearances, a resurgence in politically related sexual violence, and attempts to silence Zimbabwe rights critics from speaking out.
“We have a feeling that this conjunction of factors is going to lead to another outbreak of terrible sexual violence. And the things they are doing to women, the young woman who was taken a few days ago, Jestina, at five o’clock in the morning in her nightgown, and hasn’t been heard of since. And now, in another kind of nightmarish way, of more human rights activists. This is what a regime does as an act of unbridled vengeance as they are going down,” he noted.
Lewis says Jestina Mukoko and two of her associates who also disappeared last week performed courageous service for the victims of poverty, disease, and rights abuse in far-reaching areas of Zimbabwe and that their removal from the scene sends a chilling signal to women across the country.
“The work she was doing was incredibly important and noble. She had people across the country covertly keeping an eye on what was happening, trying to preserve security where it was broken, trying to distribute food and make sure that people were fed. And I would think that the message that is sent to the women of Zimbabwe is a message of terror. There’s been such incredible sexual violence, and now, you have the additional abduction and potential ruthless behavior towards the human rights activists,” he said.
On Tuesday, US President George Bush joined calls by his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and several outspoken Southern African rights advocates for President Mugabe to leave office. But the African Union rejected suggestions that troops should be sent in to force a resignation. Stephen Lewis, who also served as Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, said the growing opposition to a perpetual ZANU-PF regime would not hurt human rights crusaders cause in the country, but that ultimately, it will be up to African leaders to persuade President Mugabe to give up power.
“I rather doubt they will respond to the President Bushes and the Gordon Browns. What will bring Mugabe to an end is the surrounding African countries. It’s got to be the Raila Odingas, the Archbishop Tutus. It’s got to be the head of Zambia. It’s got to be the countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that themselves turn the screws on Mugabe. The time is over to exonerate him because at one time in his life, he fought the anti-apartheid struggle, and the way he will be brought to an end is by his fellow Africans,” says Lewis.
With reports that Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic has now spread to South Africa and Botswana, AIDS-Free World co-director Stephen Lewis says he thinks that Zimbabwe’s neighbors, particularly South Africa, will not be in the mood to countenance further consequences from Harare’s instability and will hopefully act more forcefully for regime change in their neighboring country. He also says that with countries like Croatia and the United Kingdom holding leadership within the UN Security Council this month, there is a good chance the body will agree to meet to address the crisis in Zimbabwe before the end of the year.