BOSTON — The mounting movement for Robert Mugabe to be charged with crimes against humanity will be boosted this week by a report that finds the Zimbabwean dictator is responsible for criminal neglect that caused the country's deadly cholera epidemic.
Mugabe is culpable for dismantling Zimbabwe's health and sanitation services and thereby provoking the cholera outbreak that has killed more than 2,000 people to date and could kill as many as 5,000 people if left unchecked, according to a new report by Physicians for Human Rights to be released this week.
The doctors' damning report, provided exclusively to GlobalPost, adds momentum to the growing international campaign for the Mugabe regime to be charged with crimes against humanity.
Mugabe should be charged with crimes for "presiding over the destruction of a health system and an economy. It is not mismanagement, it is calculated. It is criminal," said Frank Donaghue, chief executive of the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights, which will issue its report Jan. 13 in Johannesburg and New York.
"Mugabe spends money on the military and intelligence services that keep him in power instead of on the medical and sanitation services essential to the health of the population," said Donaghue.
"The Mugabe government created the grounds for the cholera epidemic by allowing the water supply system to break down, by not repairing broken sewer pipes and allowing public water to become contaminated, by closing hospitals and allowing the entire health system to collapse," he added.
"Cholera is not just a disease, it's a crime," said Donaghue, who was part of the investigative team that visited Zimbabwe at the end of December.
If a United Nations tribunal on Zimbabwe were launched, observers in southern Africa believe it would bring crucial international pressure that could speed the end of the Zimbabwean president's 28-year rule. The International Bar Association, Amnesty International, the anti-torture group Redress, the South African Council of Churches and the South African Catholic Bishops Conference have all urged the United Nations Security Council to investigate Mugabe for crimes against humanity.
The physicians' report includes a statements of support from South African Nobel-winning archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, formerly the United Nations commissioner for human rights and Irish prime minister. While in Zimbabwe the team of medical experts interviewed more than 90 people, ranging from doctors and health specialists to ordinary Zimbabweans seeking health care.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous actions and policies by the Mugabe government that it says constitute crimes. "There is no question that the Mugabe government has committed serious crimes for which Mugabe and other officials must be held accountable," said Tiseke Kasambala, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"There is ample evidence of the crimes and there are international conventions which make it possible to bring them to justice," said Kasambala, from her office in Johannesburg.
Some experts in international law question whether there is enough evidence to indict Mugabe and point out that the International Criminal Court has not established a strong track record of convictions.
"It will not be easy but it is necessary," said Kasambala. Mugabe could be charged by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands or by a special United Nations tribunal, according to Kasambala. Human Rights Watch has a legal team that is investigating the best way to bring Mugabe to justice.
Zimbabwe has not signed the convention on international crimes but once there is a new government in Zimbabwe, it could ask the ICC to investigate and charge Mugabe.
The United Nations Security Council can order an investigation into crimes in Zimbabwe and form a special tribunal. "A U.N. tribunal would have more powers and scope to look at violations that constitute crimes against humanity," said Kasambala.
Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association, agrees that Mugabe should be investigated for crimes against humanity. "The legal basis for holding Mugabe accountable is straightforward," said Ellis. He said the UN Security Council should immediately authorize the ICC to investigate Mugabe and serious crimes committed in Zimbabwe.
Crimes against humanity are defined as a widespread attack against a civilian population, usually as part of a government plan. These crimes include killing, sexual violence, torture, displacement and using the distribution of food as a political weapon or depriving housing and medical care to those who oppose the government.
A UN tribunal brought former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor to trial. Taylor is currently on trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes before a UN special tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Taylor is the first ex-African head of state to appear before an international tribunal.
"Mugabe has a history of crimes that go back to the 1980s in Matabeleland," said Kasambala, referring to what is known as the Matabeleland Massacres, in which a special army brigade under Mugabe's command went on a four-year campaign in southern Zimbabwe in which an estimated 10,000 people of the Ndebele ethnic minority were murdered, according to a report by the Zimbabwean Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
In addition to direct state violence against opposition groups, the Physicians for Human Rights report says that Mugabe should also be charged with policies calculated to cause the deaths of thousands of Zimbabweans. The dismantling of Zimbabwe's once excellent health and sanitation services, which brought about the current cholera epidemic, is one example, report the Physicians for Human Rights. Another example is Mugabe's 2005 campaign in which the army bulldozed tens of thousands of homes in urban townships, which are bastions of support for the opposition. More than 700,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, affecting more than two million people, according to a UN investigation. Many of those made homeless later died of disease or malnutrition, say human rights activists in Zimbabwe.
In the current cholera epidemic, more than 40,000 Zimbabweans have been infected with cholera and it is expected that 60,000 will fall ill with the disease before the epidemic is brought under control, according to the World Health Organization, which issues weekly bulletins on the situation. The disease has spread to all 10 of the country's provinces and to neighboring countries of Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. The cholera bacteria is so rife in Zimbabwe that it has contaminated the main reservoir for Harare and also the Limpopo River, which forms the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Ordinarily cholera is fatal to about one percent of those who contract the disease. But Zimbabwe's death rate is five percent because of the shortage of clean water, medical facilities and the high levels of malnutrition and disease already prevalent among the population.
As a result of disease and malnutrition, the average life expectancy of Zimbabwean women has dropped from 61 to 34 years, which is the lowest in the world, according to WHO.
The Mugabe government has closed three of Zimbabwe's four major public hospitals. The hospitals in Harare and Bulawayo until recently were among the best in Africa. Without money, the hospitals ran out of drugs and doctors and nurses were not paid. In November the hospitals had no running water and by December they were closed.
"The cholera that we see in Zimbabwe is a symptom of a much broader problem, the collapse of the country's health system, the closure of hospitals, growing levels of malnutrition and the collapse of the economy," said Donaghue, who has visited Zimbawe several times in the past year.
"Unquestionably Mugabe and his officials must be held accountable for the destruction of the health care system and the drop in life expectancy," said Donaghue, who will be in Johannesburg to release the report. He called on the United Nations to take action to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis. Donaghue said it is "tragic" that China, Russia and South Africa have prevented the United Nations Security Council from considering the Zimbabwean crisis.
"We are seeing Zimbabwe's people die in very high numbers," said Donaghue. "International bodies must act to stop the ongoing massacre."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that South African archbishop Desmond Tutu has signed the preface to the report. It has also been updated to show the new figures for the death toll.