Sholto Byrnes: Should Robert Mugabe be now forgiven his crimes?

Prosecuting one man can't remove the complicty of all the others

Share
Related Topics

Robert Mugabe has not had such a good week since he managed to shake hands with Prince Charles at the last pope's funeral in 2005. Days after regional leaders at the South African Development Community summit called for the removal of "all forms of sanctions against Zimbabwe", the one-time pariah president received another present: the arrival of an EU delegation, the first such visit to his country for seven years.

Some may find images of a cheery Mugabe welcoming the Swedish development minister with "open arms" and brushing aside questions about stepping down - at 85, he is "still young", he said - hard to stomach. This is a man, after all, who has presided over economic ruin, torture, killing and starvation. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has called for him to be tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity. But far from demanding punishment, could we - should we - bring ourselves to forgive him instead?

In June this year I sat down with a man who has responded in just such a superhumanly charitable manner to the brutal actions of another dictator. Mohamed Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives last November. Under the previous regime of Maumoon Gayoom, he had been imprisoned 23 times, held in a tiny metal box under the tropical sun for months, and tortured, including being forced to swallow broken glass. But remarkably, he has not only forgiven his jailers and torturers but has refused to take any action against them whatsoever.

"We shouldn't come out with this sweet revenge idea," he told me as we spoke after he opened the new Iru Fushi Hilton, a sumptuous symbol of the only Maldives that holidaymakers ever see. He has removed the chief of police, but apart from him, "the rest of the top brass are my own interrogators," he said. "There are so many allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. No one has to tell me. I know it's true - I've been tortured twice."

But Nasheed, an English-educated journalist whose cause was championed by Amnesty and PEN, is unwilling to prosecute members of the old regime. "In the past, whenever there's been a change of government, the former ruler was either mobbed or sent out from the country. We want to break that circle and see if we can find amicable solutions."

Zimbabwe's neighbour, South Africa, provides another example of such heroic magnanimity - of victims of injustice and brutality showing themselves to be better than their oppressors.

Forgiveness appears to be in short supply in Britain at the moment, however. A recent poll found that a majority of Scots not only opposed the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi but thought he should die in jail, an opinion shared by David Cameron. But leave aside the question of Megrahi's failing health and the problem is this: is it right to load such a weight of vengeance on one man's shoulders?

For this is undoubtedly part of the reason why the uproar over his release has been so great. No other individuals have been called to account for the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, for Libya's long years as a state-sponsor of terrorism, nor for its provision of semtex explosives to the IRA.

We hunger for a man, a name to which we can put a face, on whom justice is seen to be done. It is an understandable appetite, and indulging it can be both satisfying and convenient, as the French found when they placed the burden of guilt for wartime collaboration on Marshal Petain, thus allowing former Vichy fonctionnaires such as Francois Mitterrand off the hook. But it does not make it right, nor necessarily just; for prosecuting one man, whether dictator, terrorist or war criminal, does not remove the complicity of all the others, often the thousands, who have supported or participated in their crimes.

Further, baying for such punishment can end up having the effect of prolonging the actions we wish to condemn. For all that governments pretend they will never talk to terrorist groups, for instance, it is only when they do, and combine that with ceasing threats of retribution, that those groups can shed their violence and enter the political realm. Similarly, efforts to bring Mugabe to the International Court of Justice will not increase the likelihood of his voluntarily relinquishing power (and there is no imminent prospect of his leaving in any other way).

If opposition figures and the Obama White House are willing to contemplate dealing with the military as part of Burma's future, then the Zimbabwean president, who, for all his misdeeds, does not have a record as appalling as the Burmese generals, may have to be recognised as part of the solution in his country, too.

Forgiveness – and refusing to seek legal vengeance for Robert Mugabe's crimes may be seen as an expression of that – may be hard. But if one day it helps an old dictator become an old ex-dictator, it may prove far sweeter than revenge.



The author is Assistant Editor of the New Statesman

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas