Fighting Words

Is Zimbabwe Now a Rogue State?

And is it germ warfare when cholera sufferers are forced to cross international boundaries?

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe

The situation in Zimbabwe has now reached the point where the international community would be entirely justified in using force to put Robert Mugabe under arrest and place him on trial. Why do I say this now?

Mugabe’s crimes were frightful enough before, to be sure. But they were the crimes of an elected government, and it wasn’t absolutely clear that they exceeded the threshold at which intervention can be justified or, rather, mandated. Essentially, there are four such criteria. One is genocide, which, according to the signatories of the Genocide Convention (the United States is one), necessitates immediate action either to prevent or to punish the perpetrators. Another is aggression against the sovereignty of neighboring states, including occupation of their territory. A third is hospitality for, or encouragement of, international terrorist groups, and a fourth is violations of the Nonproliferation Treaty or of U.N. resolutions governing weapons of mass destruction.

Mugabe did kill a lot of people in Matabeleland in the 1980s on punitive expeditions inflicted by special units, trained by North Korea, against an ethnic group not his own. And he has punished recalcitrant voting districts by the indiscriminate denial of food supplies. But this doesn’t quite rise to the level of “genocide.” His soldiers may at one time have taken part in the opportunist looting of the resources of Congo, but this doesn’t exactly qualify as invasion or occupation. Zimbabwe is not a harbor or haven for wanted international terrorists, and it isn’t a player in the international WMD black market, either.

The situation has altered recently, however, and an examination of what has altered may help us to clarify when a state crosses the boundary from “failed” to “rogue.” So great is the misery of the Zimbabwean people that acute diseases like cholera are now rife. And such is their degree of desperation that they have started crossing the frontier en masse, chiefly in the direction of South Africa, taking their maladies with them. This means that Mugabe has made himself an international problem, destabilizing his neighbors and thus giving them a direct legitimate interest in (and a right to concern themselves with) the restabilizing of Zimbabwe. If the voices of people like Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel, who are beginning to insist that regional action be taken to remove Mugabe, are ever heard properly, it will probably be because Mugabe went too far in driving infected people onto the territory of the countries next door. This is germ warfare of a kind.

Nor is it a detail that Mugabe clearly lost the last election in Zimbabwe, in spite of being able to use the machinery of state as if it were the private property of his own ruling party. The overthrow of democratic rule in any country is something we are quite entitled to consider as the possible prelude to extreme or threatening measures against neighboring states. The European Union, for example, will not admit any country that does not have a functioning parliamentary democracy and would expel any member that reverted to military rule (which is one ironic reason why Turkey’s Islamists are often such keen pro-Europeans). There are those in the African Union who would like to see a similar policy adopted, though it’s a good bit further off. The United Nations, of course, has to take its nations as they come, even though Kofi Annan’s “duty of care” concept did slightly erode the previous emphasis on the “internal affairs” of member states.

The dialectic between “rogue” and “failed” is not always easy to measure. Iraq (which under Saddam Hussein was the only state to have met all four of the criteria I mentioned above) became a failed state as a consequence of becoming a rogue one and thereby brought ruinous sanctions, isolation, and corruption on itself. Afghanistan became a rogue state as a consequence of being a failed one—often through no fault of its own—in which international political gangsters could find a base. It was internal “rogue” behavior that almost destroyed Rwanda as a country, that sent vast numbers of refugees across its borders, and that helped trigger the heartbreaking civil war in Congo that may well by now have taken millions of lives. The disease that was carried in that case was the plague of ethno-fascist tribalism of which we now see the full harvest.

I once spent some time with Sebastiao Salgado, the UNICEF special envoy for the eradication of polio. * By 2001, when we visited Calcutta and other parts of Bengal, this horrible and preventable illness was well on its way to joining smallpox as a thing of the past. But if only a few pockets resist inoculation, the malady, which is almost insanely infectious, comes roaring back across wide swaths of neighboring territory. And in certain militant Muslim areas, where it is believed that the inoculation is a plot to make people sterile, the doctors and nurses of the campaign have been shot as imperialist intruders. As a result, polio is spreading again. Once more, it seems to me that this could qualify the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan as having, to that extent, become an international responsibility rather than just the concern of Pakistan alone. The fact that the Taliban and al-Qaida spread from the same source may not be entirely coincidental, which is why I offer the thought that human rights and epidemiology may be natural partners—and that Zimbabwe could make an excellent laboratory in which to test the proposition that the two kinds of health are related.

Correction, Feb. 9, 2009: The article originally misstated the U.N. agency for which Sebastiao Salgado is a goodwill ambassador. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)