Last week, the Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald published a story that was posted on AllAfrica.com reporting that, in anticipation of the upcoming 2013 U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) General Assembly meeting scheduled to take place in Zimbabwe and Zambia, “President [Robert] Mugabe and his Zambian counterpart Michael Sata have been appointed United Nations international tourism ambassadors in recognition of the promotion and development of tourism.” The notion that the UNWTO would honor a murderous despot like Mugabe rightly stirred outrage and inspired a number of blogs and news stories, including one I wrote.
Stunned by this condemnation, the obscure U.N. agency has defended itself, arguing that it is all a misunderstanding and that “UNWTO does not have an Ambassadors Programme.” So everything is OK, right? Wrong.
Although the UNWTO may not be honoring Mugabe with the title of “ambassador” as reported by The Herald, the organization is honoring him nonetheless. As reported by Claudia Rosett:
I sent a query to the UNWTO’s “Principal Media Officer,” as listed on the UNWTO web site, and received confirmation, by email, that the UNWTO is indeed celebrating Mugabe, as part of its “Leaders for Tourism Campaign.” Yes, the UNWTO’s Jordanian secretary-general, Taleb Rifai, will be visiting southern Africa …to dignify Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, as UNWTO “leaders.”
The reason Rifai is going to such lengths, explains the UNWTO press office, is that Zimbabwe and Zambia will be co-hosting the UNWTO’s General Assembly next year, at Victoria Falls.
The UNWTO’s story is that the recognition is part of its “Global Leaders for Tourism Campaign” that is open to every head of state, and that “receiving of the Open Letter implies no legal commitment or official title attribution to the country or the recipient.”
Obfuscation will not work. The UNWTO may not have tourism ambassadors as reported, but it does have “Global Leaders for Tourism” and has decided that Mugabe belongs among them. This distinction does not obviate the conclusion that Mugabe is being honored. The campaign is a high priority for the UNWTO, along with its partner the World Travel and Tourism Council, and the decision to award Mugabe cannot be dismissed as an oversight. The campaign centers on soliciting heads of states to sign a “Golden Book” of Travel and Tourism and “showcase their commitment to promoting Travel & Tourism to the world community as a means of sustainable development.” Quotations and images of various heads of state and government—“taken while being presented with the Open Letter”—will be used to promote the importance of tourism and the work of the organizations.
Moreover, the UNWTO is honoring Mugabe simply by allowing him to co-host the 20th session of its General Assembly in 2013. Mugabe would likely never have even heard of the campaign or the “Golden Book” if the UNWTO had not decided to hold its meeting in Zimbabwe. Among hundreds—even thousands—of options, the UNWTO decided to hold its 2013 General Assembly meeting in Zimbabwe, knowing full well what Mugabe is and what he has done.
Why would the UNWTO reward a despot like Mugabe with such recognition? Why would the UNWTO think that having Mugabe in its “Golden Book” could in any way benefit the campaign? If the point was to highlight Victoria Falls, why not hold it just in Zambia rather than both countries?
The bottom line is that UNWTO is focusing on a technicality in hope of distracting attention from the appalling fact that it is honoring Mugabe. It deserves the scorn it is receiving.