Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean strongman who is banned from traveling to much of the world due to U.S. and European Union sanctions, has been named as a “leader for tourism” by the United Nations.
The United Nations World Tourism Organziation (UNWTO) honored Mugabe and his political ally, Zambian President Micheal Sata, on Tuesday. The decision has generated serious controversy due to the fact that Mugabe has been widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, murdering his opposition, and wrecking Zimbabwe’s economy.
“I can’t see any justification for the man being an ‘ambassador’. An ambassador for what?” Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, told The Guardian. “Do they want tourists to see those bloody hands?”
“Robert Mugabe is under international sanctions,” he added. “How do you have an international tourism ambassador who can’t travel to other countries?”
John Makumbe, a politics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, told The Guardian that “I think it’s ridiculous because Zimbabwe is one of the countries least used by tourists…Robert Mugabe will do more damage to international tourism than good. His image is in tatters, his country is an international pariah.”
Makumbe’s point is backed up by the U.S. Government. The State Department warns on its website that
The political, social, economic, and security situations in Zimbabwe are unpredictable and could deteriorate quickly without warning. Political harassment and intimidation by members of Zimbabwe’s security forces is pervasive and security forces may suppress dissent by whatever means deemed necessary.
Resident and visiting U.S. citizens have been arrested, detained, and threatened with expulsion for activities that would not be considered crimes in the United States, including the administration of humanitarian aid and the expression of opinions regarding the current political regime in Zimbabwe. Criticism of the President is a crime in Zimbabwe.
President Mugabe and other senior government officials travel around Harare accompanied by large and aggressive motorcades that have been known to run motorists off the road. Security personnel occasionally beat and harass drivers who fail to pull out of the way quickly enough.
In other words, Mugabe may not be an authority on international hospitality.
For its part, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party is claiming that the UNWTO has proven that reports of Mugabe’s misdeeds are overblown. In a statement that could have come straight out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy “The Dictator,” spokesman Rugare Gumbo said:
There’s no alternative but to accept the reality on the ground. We can theorise about sanctions but the reality is that the UN is in control of the situation. If you can’t defeat them, join them: that is what we are witnessing.
In response to the controversy over Mugabe’s selection, UNWTO spokesman Sandra Carvao backpedaled in a statement to The Guardian:
“Correct would be to say UNWTO has presented both presidents with an open letter which calls for them to support tourism as a means to foster sustainable development in their countries to the benefit of their people and consequently ask them to support the sector in this respect.”
She added: “UNWTO does not have an ambassadors programme and the receiving of the UNWTO/WTTC [World Travel and Tourism Council] open letter implies no legal commitment or title attribution to the country or the head of state or government in question.”