Robert Mugabe

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), created in 1970 and based in Madrid, identifies itself as the “United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.” It announced last year that Zambia and Zimbabwe jointly “won the bid” to host the 20th session of the UNWTO General Assembly in 2013. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has been appointed a “United Nations international tourism ambassador” in recognition of the promotion and development of tourism.

These decisions are appalling.

Zimbabwe’s once-robust economy was all but destroyed by a decade of politically motivated violence, ruinous inflation, and outright theft by government officials and their cronies. Thousands were killed and hundreds arrested and detained indefinitely. Millions fled the violence, and many will never return. Zimbabwe set a new world record for inflation, printing single notes worth $100 trillion. Savings were wiped out and deposits became worthless in hours or minutes. Commercial farms were seized and occupied by Mugabe supporters, and the agricultural sector has never recovered.

All told, Zimbabwe’s economy shrank by 45 percent between 1999 and 2008, according to the World Bank, and people are poorer today than a decade ago despite recent positive growth under a fragile unity government.

Many people participated in this destruction or encouraged it, but Mugabe bears overall responsibility. He specifically adopted economically ruinous policies intended to hurt his political opponents. That the policies also gravely harmed the lives of nearly every other Zimbabwean as well (with the exception of Mugabe and his associates, who profited through corruption or were shielded from the consequences by virtue of their positions) was deemed less important than holding onto power. Worse, Mugabe continues to intimidate his political opponents and, notably for the UNWTO, tourists. As noted by the U.S. State Department:

Political harassment and intimidation by members of Zimbabwe’s security forces is pervasive and security forces may suppress dissent by whatever means deemed necessary. While the country has been relatively stable since the establishment of a unity government in early 2009, election related demonstrations and riots may become more common. Demonstrations are often violently dispersed by security forces. Political tension associated with the anticipated elections is high and political rallies often end with violent clashes between political parties. U.S. citizens traveling to Zimbabwe should avoid crowds and all public demonstrations and protests.

You should carefully evaluate travel around Zimbabwe by road, particularly at night.… You should also notify a trusted friend or family member of your itinerary, including expected departure and arrival times.…

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.

U.S. citizen visitors have been detained under suspicion of operating as journalists without accreditation for photographing cultural sites and areas that may not immediately appear to be sensitive.… They have detained U.S. citizens for hours for photographing such seemingly innocuous subjects as fruit carts and religious buildings such as churches, mosques, and synagogues. You should be very aware of your surroundings before taking any pictures outside game parks and known tourist areas.

Zimbabwe is clearly not an overlooked, serene tourist destination compatible with UNWTO’s objectives. On the contrary, Mugabe’s policies are irresponsible, unsustainable, deliberately discriminatory, and hazardous to tourism. By giving its seal of approval to Zimbabwe, the UNWTO is giving tourists an inaccurate impression that could endanger travelers.

The U.S. is not and never has been a member of the UNWTO, a decision based principally on an inability to discern enough (or any) benefit to justify the cost.

Zimbabwe has found one—image rehabilitation. That the UNWTO is willing to help Mugabe resuscitate his image says volumes about the character of the organization. And that is exactly how Mugabe will present this event. According to Tourism and Hospitality Minister Walter Mzembi, “This will be Zimbabwes ultimate endorsement by the international community as a key African State on the socio, economic and political global landscape.… 186 countries will endorse brand Zimbabwe!”

The event will also be used to justify enormous investments in tourism-related projects and infrastructure in the lead-up to elections. Some, such as improved roads, will have widespread benefits. Others, such as reviving the state airline, will be little more than showpiece money pits. Both cases, however, present enormous opportunity for graft and patronage.

It would be nice to say that this is an aberration in the U.N. system, but, sadly, it is not. The U.N. sees no problem with having China and Cuba sit on the Human Rights Council, having North Korea head the Conference on Disarmament, or electing Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women.

As Sacha Baron Cohen was told after the U.N. banned him from filming scenes at Turtle Bay for his spoof The Dictator, “[W]e represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them so you can’t shoot in there.” Mugabe no doubt appreciates the U.N.’s concern.