The government of South Africa is invoking “universal jursidiction” to investigate allegations of a systematic, politically-based rape campaign in Zimbabwe.
The rapes are said to have targeted opposition supporters ahead of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election.
Anchor, Marco Werman speaks with Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World in South Africa, who’s been advocating for the prosecution of the perpetrators of the Zimbabwe rapes.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. In the wake of the Oscar Pistorius murder case we’ve heard a lot recently about the high levels of violence in South Africa. But today we’re following a big story out of that country that’s about crimes committed in neighboring Zimbabwe. The South African government says it’s investigating allegations of politically motivated rapes, preceding Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections. According to the allegations, supporters of President Robert Mugabe’s political party enacted a systematic campaign of rapes against female opposition supporters. Paula Donovan is the co-director of AIDS-Free World. That’s an advocacy group that’s been documenting accounts from rape victims in Zimbabwe.
Paula Donovan: The campaign was extraordinarily brutal. Women were abducted from their homes at night and some of them were frog marched through the streets to base camps where they were detained, sometimes for days at a time, gang raped and then returned to their communities to send a message to the rest of the community.
Werman: Have you personally met any of the victims, Paula, and heard from them what they’ve been through?
Donovan: I have, yes. I accompanied several of the women to a clinic because they wanted to get HIV tests, and heard their stories. They were told they were traitors to Zimbabwe. In some cases they were told that they were being given the disease and the women understood that to mean that they were being intentionally infected with HIV as punishment for what they had done.
Werman: Paula, you’re in South Africa and AIDS-Free World called on the South African government to get involved in these cases in neighboring Zimbabwe and they agreed. Why did you ask a neighboring country to get involved?
Donovan: It’s not possible for these crimes to be tried within Zimbabwe for obvious reasons. Some of the perpetrators and orchestrators of the atrocities are sitting in power. The polic force has been corrupted. Many people within the judicial system have been corrupted. The international criminal court, which is usually a court of last resort, cannot be a court of last resort in Zimbabwe because Zimbabwe is not a party to the Rome Statute that would allow the perpetrators within the country to be brought up on charges. And so we relied on something called universal jurisdiction.
Werman: Do you think this can really work? I mean South Africa is a country with its own problem of law and order.
Donovan: That’s right, but I think South Africa is demonstrating by the action that it took that in some cases there are crimes that are so atrocious and certainly mass rape is one of them, that they offend us all, and I believe that South Africa is sending a clear message that this is how they will deal with rape there. They’re attempting to deal with the sexual violence within their own borders, but when it happens elsewhere in the world then they are just as grieved.
Werman: In dealing with Zimbabwe though you’ve got the added challenge of President Mugabe whose government often justifies its rule through extreme nationalism and xenophobia. Isn’t there a risk that your campaign might play into this?
Donovan: We fully expect that Robert Mugabe and his ilk will rely on that defense, that this is Neo-Colonial instinct, that this is a new imperialism, that our instincts are racist. Zimbabwe actually did sign the treaty that’s behind the international criminal court. It didn’t ratify it, but it did sign it and in so doing it recognized that there are indeed crimes against humanity that offend us all and transcend borders, so you can’t have it both ways.
Werman: So there are national elections and constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe I think in the next couple of months, how do you think this campaign coming up from South Africa is going to affect that?
Donovan: This action on the part of South Africa will definitely not go unnoticed by Robert Mugabe and others who have consistently over the years used these same tactics to intimidate voters and to maintain power, and so I think that this will send a very clear message to those perpetrators that this is not something that can be repeated, that we are all on notice and watching.
Werman: That was Paula Donovan speaking with us from Johannesburg about South Africa’s recent decision to open an investigation into a campaign of politically motivated rapes that allegedly occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe. You can find more of our ongoing coverage on issues of violence against women, including a Google hangout recorded just this morning featuring a discussion of women’s safety around the world. Watch the panel conversation at theworld.org and be sure to add your voice. Just use the #worldgender.
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