Every year, freshmen at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia get to hear former President Jimmy Carter lecture on world affairs. His presidential library is located there.
The former president’s talks at Emory, according to students who have heard them, usually center around blistering critiques of the current chief executive and his war on terror. One country that never comes up for examination is the African nation of Zimbabwe, ruled for a quarter of a century by a Marxist dictator, no matter how frequently that one-party-state makes international news.
This summer, the armies of Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, bulldozed a mosque, a church and an orphanage. Neither the former president nor representatives of the Carter Center at Emory University that he heads would comment on the carnage wrought by Zimbabwe’s dictator, even when I gave them the opportunity to do so.
The non-reactive reaction of the Carter camp is typical of his silence on the human rights abuses of the African leader who has held power for two and a half decades. Mugabe is, in fact, a Carter protégé.
Former President Carter’s human rights pronouncements of the past quarter century have been voluminous and extensive, covering a wide range of government policies domestic and foreign. Indeed, the Carter Center itself lists research and projects in more than half of Africa’s 54 nations: Zimbabwe is one country that does not make that roster, despite a population and an economy that put it among the top 5 on the continent.
President Carter frequently comments on elections in fledgling democracies. He has barely discussed Zimbabwe elections, which most human rights observers have found to be fraudulent for about as long as Mugabe has been in office.
“The election process was fundamentally flawed by pre-election intimidation and violence against the opposition by ruling party militants with tacit or even active support from the government,” the Carter Center observed of Zimbabwe’s 2000 elections. The world’s leading human rights observers also concluded that Mugabe forces were killing people that year, mostly blacks, a trend that the Carter Center did not actively acknowledge.
Mugabe’s tenure in office began around the time that President Carter’s ended. A look at the Georgian’s policies leads to the inescapable conclusion that Mugabe’s reign of terror would not have been possible without Carter’s initial support for the Zimbabwean prime minister.
For more than a decade, the colonial government of the last white prime minister of Rhodesia—Ian Smith—elicited international condemnation. Consequently, the United States government under Lyndon Johnson applied sanctions to stop all trade with Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known. Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford kept the sanctions in place.
During President Carter’s term, the Democratic Senate voted 90-0 to lift sanctions should Rhodesia hold elections that brought about a black majority government that reflected the nation’s population. This Zimbabweans did, electing Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa, and changing the name of the country. In Shona, the language of three-quarters of the country’s population, Zimbabwe means shelter.
Still, although empowered to do so by his own party in Congress, President Carter would not lift sanctions on the country, declaring that the balloting was not “free and fair.”
President Carter’s refusal to lift sanctions forced a second election which Mugabe won. Were these elections free and fair? Not according to Freedom House representatives or any other observers on the ground who mostly blamed Mugabe’s party for the intimidation, and compared that contest unfavorably with the election that gave Zimbabwe Abel Muzorewa as chief executive.
President Carter received the newly-elected Mugabe at the White House, a courtesy he would never grant Muzorewa. “There has been too much bloodshed, too much division, too much economic deprivation,” President Carter said of the Rhodesian Civil War, in which, by most accounts, Mugabe’s Soviet-, North Korean-, and Chinese Communist-backed forces caused most of the damage. “But in the 140 days of your leadership, you have alleviated tensions and assuaged unwarranted fears.”
Earlier that month [August 1980], one of Mugabe’s cabinet ministers, Edgar Tekere, and eight of his bodyguards killed a white farmer, according to Amnesty International. The Carter State Department human rights country report covering 1980 stated that, “Investigations for alleged violations of human rights by the new government of Zimbabwe have not been sought by any international or non-governmental organization.”
Perhaps President Carter’s next investigation of human rights violations by dictatorial governments should focus on Zimbabwe, present and past.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.