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Accounting Error

Robert Mugabe shouldn't get immunity

At long last, we seem to be approaching--fitfully--global agreement than Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's elected dictator, must go. He is presiding over 80 percent unemployment, an inflation rate of 1,700 percent, and shortages of nearly all basic goods. In response to his troubles, Mugabe has attacked and injured opposition leaders, opened fire on protestors, and beaten those who resist arrest. In a comparison that is as harsh as it gets in southern Africa, clerics have equated his tyrannical tactics to the worst of Pretoria's apartheid regime.

And, since many of his critics now believe that toppling his regime--and getting a fresh start for Zimbabwe--is more important than holding him to account, there are increasing calls for Mugabe to be forgiven. Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai--whose skull was cracked open in police custody last month--has hinted that Mugabe should be offered immunity if he agrees to step down. The International Crisis Group, in a March report, likewise assumed that immunity would be part of the solution. It is widely surmised that, if current efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki help end to Mugabe's rule, protection from prosecution may be part of the deal.

But, while immunity may seem a tempting solution--no worse than the way many other tyrants have left office--offering it to Mugabe now would represent a big step backward. As African countries struggle to crack down on corruption and clean up messes in their own neighborhood, allowing one of the continent's notorious strongmen to walk free--without ever holding him to account--would simply enable future despots. Mugabe missed his chance to take advantage of a long era of impunity for brutal heads of state--and, now, it's too late to make an exception.

An immunity offer has obvious appeal: If Mugabe can be coaxed to leave Harare voluntarily, he could obviate the need for either an internal coup or aggressive international action (by either South Africa's neighbors or the international community). Allowing Mugabe to while away the rest of his days (and, remember, he is already 83) on a beachfront may seem like a small price to pay for the return of stability in Zimbabwe. It may be of particular appeal to Mugabe's neighbors, who wish to resolve the region's crisis without turning on a longtime friend. (Solidarity with Mugabe, who helped throw off the colonial yoke of white-minority rule in Rhodesia, has stood in the way regional pressure.)

But while a temporary exile may be needed to get Mugabe to step aside, it should not be accompanied by permanent impunity for his crimes. Mugabe has orchestrated state-sponsored assassination, uprooted entire populations, and starved political opponents. The victims of these high crimes deserve justice, either by a domestic court or--failing that--an international one. Human rights violations like Mugabe's cannot simply be overlooked without threatening respect for human rights worldwide. If powerful human rights violators are above the law, other tyrants will continue their misery making, safe in the knowledge that they risk, at most, their authority, not their hides.

In fact, Mugabe's self-assuredness over the years owes in part to the comfortable exiles won by Marcos of the Philippines, Duvalier of Haiti, Mengistu of Ethiopia, Amin of Uganda, Stroessner of Paraguay, Mobutu of then-Zaire, the Shah of Iran, and Liberia's Charles Taylor. In most of these cases, exile meant de facto immunity, since no international courts were available to try the dictators' crimes.

Most of those countries were better off when those men left, but the mere fact of their departure isn't a good enough reason to insulate them from punishment. And this sentiment is gaining in popularity. That's why Taylor's story ended differently: After a few years spent lying low in Calabar, Nigeria's president finally succumbed to international pressure and turned him over to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. By detailing Taylor's horrific crimes, proponents of accountability overcame Nigeria's promises to protect the fallen dictator.

Of course, this bodes well for justice, but poorly for precedent. By some accounts, Taylor's saga has complicated Mbeki's approach toward Mugabe: What good is exile if it is not accompanied by immunity? What use is an immunity offer if it can be unilaterally rescinded?

The answer is not much--and that's how it should be. But by taking a stand for accountability in Zimbabwe, instead of letting Mugabe skulk away, Mbeki and others could signal a new era for Africa--one that rejects corrupt and brutal leaders, no matter their revolutionary pedigree. Considerations of pan-African solidarity are too often allowed to trump both the fundamental values of Africa's democracies and the interests of its often defenseless populations. This pattern has helped prolong the crisis in Darfur and the strife in Congo. And the message is equally important for Zimbabwe's opposition: The regime that replaces Mugabe must mark a sharp break from the past--including true legal accountability.

Rejecting an immunity deal would also reflect the sea-change in international justice that has taken place in recent decades. The creation of the U.N.'s special tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone--as well as the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998--have made justice available for perpetrators of some of the world's most notorious crimes. These courts are beyond the reach of tyrants, threats, and violence. At the same time, these bodies are beginning to reshape public expectations so that the idea of brutal thugs retiring in safe splendor is less accepted than it used to be. People have tasted international criminal justice, and they are asking for more.

Africa is at an inflection point when it comes to holding leaders responsible for corruption, incompetence, and human rights abuses. With the arrest of Charles Taylor, the continent shifted from willingness to let bygones be bygones (as the governments of Mozambique, Botswana, and Angola once avowed) to the beginnings of accountability. Having made these first steps, Africa should not let the likes of Mugabe drag it backward again.

By Suzanne Nossel