What's Left

September 22, 2003

Robert Mugabe and the Human Rights Imperialists

By Stephen Gowans

Amir Attaran and Craig Jones say Canada's Attorney-General Martin Cauchon should indict Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe for crimes against humanity.

Attaran is a lawyer and associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Jones is a lawyer in private practice in Vancouver.

The two lawyers are emblematic of a large group of NGO's, human rights organizations and progressives in Canada, the US and the UK, who want something done about foreign leaders accused of committing crimes against humanity.

But the high dudgeon of these groups seems to fall heavily on leaders of small and weak countries that resist integration into the US dominated capitalist system, and to fall less heavily on human rights abusers who preside over privately owned economies. And their attention almost never falls on deserving figures closer to home.

For example, while citing what they call Mugabe's "racially motivated sponsorship of armed thugs to confiscate white-owned farms," Attaran and Jones have no words of condemnation for US President George W. Bush, his key advisors, and his principal backer British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

On top of operating a concentration camp at Gauntanamo Bay and carrying out extrajudicial assassinations, the Bush administration has pursued two wars of aggression, crimes for which leading Nazis were condemned to death at the Nuremberg trials. Surely, crimes of this magnitude should put Mr. Bush and his key advisors at the top of Mr. Attaran's and Mr. Jones' list.

And the list needn't stop there. It could also include former General Wesely Clark, who's making a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clark led NATO's 78-day air war on Yugoslavia, an illegal affair from start to finish that saw the retired General order his bombers to attack bridges, roads, homes, factories, schools, hospitals, petrochemical plants, electrical power stations, an embassy and a radio-TV building, none of which had anything to do with the Yugoslav military, or its presence in Kosovo, and all of which were civilian targets, presumably safe from attack

Clark, for whom the obloquy "Butcher of Belgrade" fits like a glove, is an obvious war criminal. So why are Attaran and Jones going after Mugabe. Surely, whatever Mugabe is accused of is small potatoes next to Clark's crimes.

Indeed, Jones, a Canadian, should have an especial interest in his own Prime Minister, Jean Chretein, who approved Canada's participation in the Kosovo campaign. Ottawa once boasted that Canadian warplanes flew the third highest number of sorties in the weeks-long war, accounting for 10 percent of all the bombs dropped.

But Canada's participation in the destruction of a country is hardly something to boast about.  Chretien is ultimately responsible for 10 percent of the bridges, roads, factories, and other civilian targets that were destroyed. That makes the Canadian Prime Minister party to war crimes, and certainly deserving of prosecution. Yet he doesn't make the list.

Instead, human rights groups, NGO's and lawyers like Attaran and Jones almost invariably condemn leaders of countries called hostile to the West, that is, leaders who have closed important parts of their economies to Western trade and investment, and pursue independent foreign policies. Dictators, and human rights abusers who preside over privately owned economies, escape almost unscathed.

Take Saudi Arabia, for example. It is equally, if not more so, as much a human rights nightmare as pre-war Iraq was. Yet it is rarely mentioned by the those who call for the heads of Milosevic, Hussein and Mugabe. And given the hue and cry about Hussein being a dictator, and North Korea developing nuclear weapons, you'd never know Pakistan is ruled by a military dictator and is equipped with nuclear arms. Pervez Musharraf is rarely ever mentioned, except in friendly tones.

But then there's little to be gained by Western powers targeting Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They're already firmly ensconced in the Western orbit.

There was, however, once something to be gained by ousting Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb president of the Yugoslav federation. Yugoslavia once had a largely socially and state-owned economy. And it pursued an independent foreign policy.

Western powers encouraged the federation's republics to secede, and backed their most right-wing elements. The Serbs, led by Milosevic, resisted.

Soon enough, Milosevic was transformed into a human rights monster. A program of destabilization, economic warfare, bombing, a proxy guerilla war, and interference in elections, eventually toppled Milosevic, to the cheers of human rights liberals, convinced the Yugoslav president was Hitler-reborn.

Today, the economy has almost been wholly transformed from a socially-owned one, to one owned by Western investors.

It's no accident that the so-called "democratic opposition"  in target countries, seen as champions of democracy and human rights, are, first and foremost, champions of neoliberal economics and of their country's integration into the US dominated global capitalist order.

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia, much beloved by US progressives, is firmly neoliberal.

The Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's main opposition group, is a fervent proponent of free market economics.

And the Iraqi National Congress, pre-war Iraq's main exile opposition group, also favors penetration by US capital.

Yesterday, the puppet regime Washington installed in Iraq announced that 192 state-owned and state-controlled companies would be put on the auction bloc, up for sale to foreign investors.

Hailed as a measure that will kick-start the economy, the sell-off is hardly stimulative. It simply transfers ownership of Iraq's non-oil assets from the rightful owners -- Iraqis -- to Western firms and investors.

This is theft, pure and simple. Iraqis -- other than those handpicked by Washington -- haven't consented to it. And its Washington's masters Wall Street that will benefit.

So what of Zimbabwe -- what does it have to do with Iraq and Yugoslavia?

First, its land redistribution program challenges the idea of the inviolability of private property, one US administrations hold as a moral principal.

Second, it has been less than biddable where the IMF is concerned, balking at the organization's dictates. This, Yugoslavia, under Milosevic, did, as well.

And third, it has interfered with the West's proxy wars in Africa.

In short, Zimbabwe isn't playing by Washington's economic rules.

Nor, significantly, is Iran or North Korea, two countries in Washington's cross-hairs, about which human rights concerns have also been raised.

To be sure, no country is free from human rights abuses, corruption, or abuse of power, and there's much about Zimbabwe and Mugabe that can be criticized.

But before jumping aboard campaigns to take foreign leaders to task for transgressions, we should ask:

Do the charges have substance, or are they part of a propaganda program intended to build public support for intervention later on? It's easy to believe the worst of foreign leaders, especially when the mass media seem to agree unanimously on the leaders' crimes, but the Left, which prides itself on media analysis, should be wary. Often, it's not.

Does the West have an economic interest in ousting the foreign leader in question? Is he or she presiding over a largely socially or state-owned economy, resisting IMF demands to privatize state-controlled assets, or threatening Western investments?

Are there other leaders who are abusing human rights about whom little is said? If so, why not? What's the nature of their economy?

To what extent are the acts we condemn foreign leaders for Mugabe's repression of the Western-backed press, Korea's pursuit of a nuclear weapons program, Cuba's jailing of dissidents working on behalf of Washington to restore the island to capitalism defensive manoeuvres against pressure and interference by the West?

What about our own leaders? Are their crimes more notorious than those foreign leaders are accused of. Mugabe is accused of inspiring the racially-motivated take-over of white-owned farms, and of stealing an election. If these charges are true, they hardly compare to the crimes of pursuing wars of aggression or ordering attacks on civilian infrastructure. Where should our attention be directed? What does it say when we focus on foreign leaders that resist integration into the US-dominated capitalist system, while ignoring, or minimizing, the huge -- and imperialist -- crimes of our own leaders?

There's no question the West is pressuring Mugabe to step down, in favor of Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, who would prove far more congenial to Western economic interests. Tsvangirai has no serious plan for land redistribution, and wouldn't challenge Western interests that stand in the way. Rather than calling for Mugabe to be prosecuted, anyone genuinely interested in justice in Zimbabwe should be demanding the West support the country's land reform program, and free Harare from the IMF's neoliberal dictates.

Unfortunately, it will be said -- by the same people who cheered on the Western-backed Democratic Opposition of Serbia, backed Saddam's ouster, and are lining up behind Wesley Clark --  that not condemning Mugabe is bad politics and is no way to carry out a progressive anti-imperialism.

On the contrary, calling for Mugabe's prosecution, rather than demanding Zimbabweans be given space to deal effectively with past colonialism and current imperialism, is hardly anti-imperialist, progressive or otherwise.

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