I had never seen a combat machine gun in a civilian hospital until the day I went to Harare's Avenues Clinic to visit two women, pro-democracy leaders who had just survived a brutal, methodical beating at the hands of the police.
"We went through unspeakable torture. Each time that night when we heard the sound of boots returning, our bowels loosened," said Grace Kwinjeh of the ordeal she and Sekai Holland, 64, underwent.
Now they were attempting to heal while under armed guard, hearing those same boots approaching their bedsides intermittently throughout the night.
Zimbabwe's "3/11" -- the day 50 people set out to attend a prayer meeting but ended up suffering hours of torture by security agents -- shocked the world and raised hopes that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's impunity might at last be halted. But barely a month later, the television news cameras are pointing elsewhere, and international leaders are switching off their phones, declining to hear the shrill cries coming out of Zimbabwe. Why? There are two reasons.
First, southern African leaders have told the world that the Zimbabwe problem must be left to them to address; and second, the new victims of Mugabe's crackdown are "smaller" people -- street level pro-democracy organizers, known in their communities but scarcely recognized in the neighboring district, let alone in the wider world. At least 600 of them have been abducted and tortured by state terror agents this year.
Far from being chastened by all the attention, Mugabe's regime has stepped up its efforts, invading homes at night, picking off local leaders and activists and taking them to cells in isolated police stations. Officers who protest are court-martialed and transferred to remote stations. A journalist has recently been murdered. And lest they protest too loudly, non-governmental organizations have been warned that they may lose their license to operate.
The world has been told to put matters in the hands of South African President Thabo Mbeki's quiet diplomacy. Yet the repression and violence have only intensified since Mbeki received his mandate from his neighboring heads of state. Far from condemning Mugabe, they called for the "lifting of all forms of sanctions against Zimbabwe" and insisted that the scandalously rigged elections of the past six years had been free and fair.
Small wonder that Mugabe was emboldened, and that terror squads now openly brag to their victims that there will be no opposition left by the time of the elections next year.
The efforts of those progressive African leaders who are seeking a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis are, of course, welcome. But, while African solutions for the constitutional, electoral and economic questions that the country faces are sought and debated, the reality of torture and abductions is an urgent matter that literally cries out for immediate intervention. Doesn't the international community have a responsibility to protect?
In her seminal 2003 book America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power warned that when it comes to preventing loss of life and the torture of groups and individuals at the hands of armed, predatory regimes, the world community always does too little too late.
Yet in 2005, the UN Security Council rightly decided to discuss Operation Murambatsvina, under which the Zimbabwe government destroyed the homes of 700,000 people and the livelihoods of at least 20 percent of Zimbabwe's poor population. Now, Zimbabwe is again at a point where the UN needs to act to end the escalating abductions and torture.
South Africa's UN ambassador, Dumisani Kumalo, argues that Zimbabwe's crisis is not an appropriate matter for the Security Council, because it does not threaten international peace and security. Yet Mbeki himself has spoken of the huge humanitarian "burden" on his country as a result of the chaos next door. Indeed, 3 million Zimbabweans have escaped into neighboring countries, fueling increased poverty, crime and xenophobia.
We must learn from history. Kumalo undoubtedly approved when the UN General Assembly passed its resolution of September 30, 1974, against South Africa. Yet it was not premised on apartheid's threat to security, but on its serious violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In Security Council resolutions passed this year on Somalia, Haiti and others, the Council has appropriately observed that serious human rights abuses pose a threat to peace and security in the regions where those states are situated. Zimbabwe's crisis meets this standard.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his human rights commissioner, Louise Arbor, made a good start when they spoke out about the abuses in Zimbabwe in March. The UN could take the next step by sending in a mission to review, monitor and call for an end to abductions and torture, and to protect human rights defenders. This falls clearly within the UN's responsibility to protect, no matter what local diplomatic initiatives African leaders undertake and regardless of how South Africa feels about it.
It is unconscionable that no one, so far, has been willing to try to stop the perpetrators of Zimbabwe's terror.
Tawanda Mutasah is the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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