Betsy Apple Speaking Out:

AIDS-Free World’s Strategy to Challenge Impunity and Stop More Election-Related Rape in Zimbabwe

By Betsy Apple

30 April, 2012

AIDS-Free World has been working since 2008 to document and address the widespread rape in Zimbabwe that accompanied elections during that year. The testimony we gathered from rape survivors, described in our 2009 report Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, demonstrated that the mass rape, perpetrated by Mugabe’s supporters and ZANU-PF party members, rose to the level of crimes against humanity. Now that Zimbabwe is on the verge of new elections, our task is dual: to challenge the blanket impunity for past political rape, and to pressure Zimbabwe’s neighbors and the international community to act proactively to prevent the next round of sexual crimes against humanity.

The Southern African Litigation Center (SALC) and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) recently argued a case before the North Gauteng High Court, demanding that the South African National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) undertake an investigation into widespread torture in Zimbabwe that occurred around the 2008 elections. SALC and ZEF had documented ZANU-PF’s use of torture as a tool to quell political dissent and asked the NPA to investigate and potentially prosecute perpetrators under the South African ICC law. This law is a domestic translation of the Rome Statute, the international treaty that gave rise to the International Criminal Court, which South Africa ratified. After the NPA refused to investigate the torture in Zimbabwe, SALC/ZEF brought an action in court to compel them to do so. The judgment in the High Court case is pending and may come down at any time.

The SALC/ZEF case is not only important in South Africa and Zimbabwe; it is also critical to the international justice community as a whole. If South Africa takes seriously its obligations under its ICC law, it can serve as a global leader to other countries that have the wherewithal to investigate and prosecute crimes occurring in countries that lack that capacity.

AIDS-Free World has consulted with SALC about how we may effectively support that case as well as how best to submit a request to the NPA to investigate and possibly prosecute mass rape. SALC agreed it would be helpful for AIDS-Free World to intervene as a friend of the court in the current SALC/ZEF case, but we wanted to do so in a way that didn't disrupt the proceedings at the High Court. (AIDS-Free World's evidence of widespread rape would reinforce SALC's claims that Mugabe used mass torture by demonstrating a generalized context in which crimes against humanity were occurring). Consequently, AIDS-Free World plans to intervene at the next stage of the SALC/ZEF case, if and when the High Court decision is appealed. (An appeal to the Supreme Court may happen no matter how the High Court rules: If the judgment is in favor of SALC, the NPA may appeal, and if the judgment supports the NPA, SALC may do so.) AIDS-Free World will intervene as a friend of the court at the Supreme Court stage of the proceedings, if and when that occurs.

In the meantime, AIDS-Free World is planning to submit a request to the NPA to investigate mass election-related rape in Zimbabwe in 2008. While it is likely that the NPA will not act on such a dossier until the current case is resolved through the courts, we want to be in the queue. As well, our submission will serve as the basis for further advocacy about the need to end impunity for past rape, and the need to take preventative action around the next elections.

AIDS-Free World is deeply concerned that the violence in Zimbabwe in anticipation of the next elections has already started. Preventative international action will be necessary, based on Mugabe's long history of deploying rape as a strategy to keep power. Ending impunity for the past election's violence is one way to prevent future political rape. It is clear that the many women who were raped in the past cannot access justice in Zimbabwe, which makes South Africa’s role absolutely crucial. Given that South Africa is the only country in southern Africa with the means and capacity to prosecute international crimes occurring outside its borders, combined with the fact that many Zimbabwean perpetrators travel to South Africa, it is imperative for South Africa to implement its ICC law and to delay justice no longer. 

The best scenario to prevent more political rape would include action by the African troika charged with supporting Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement (South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia) to demand that the Zimbabwean government permit regional and international election observers to enter before the elections occur. However, given that the troika has failed to address impunity for past crimes thus far (although they still have the opportunity to do so), AIDS-Free World believes the broader international community must converge. The African Union should take measures to pressure Zimbabwe to allow transparency and international engagement in the elections. Absent that, the UN Security Council should put Zimbabwe on its agenda. Ideally, the Security Council would work with the AU to develop an election-monitoring plan that would prevent an all-but-inevitable next round of rape and torture and other crimes against humanity.