UN honor for Robert Mugabe sparks outrage on Capitol Hill

The United Nations has “hit a new low” with its decision to honor Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe as an international tourism leader, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said Tuesday.

Mugabe has been accused of rigging elections, cracking down on political opponents and plunging his country into economic ruin. The president is an international pariah subject to a travel ban by the United States and the European Union.

But on Tuesday, Mugabe and one of his political allies, Zambian President Michael Sata, inked an agreement for their countries to co-host the United Nations World Tourism Organization's general assembly in August 2013. The U.N. also sent Mugabe and Sata a letter asking them to serve as "global leaders" for tourism. 

“The UN has hit a new low with the naming of Mugabe as a UN tourism envoy, as if North Korea chairing the Conference on Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurd. An organization devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals. Enough is enough. We need real UN reform with real consequences for these outrages.”

Ros-Lehtinen is the author of legislation that would enable the United States to withhold funding for U.N. agencies it disagrees with, such as the Human Rights Council, which many lawmakers view as being anti-Israel.

In response to international criticism, the UNWTO said it didn't give Mugabe any tourism title but merely sent him the same “Open Letter on Travel and Tourism” that more than two dozen other heads of state received. The letter calls on the leaders to acknowledge tourism as a driver of economic growth and confers no legal commitment or title, according to the U.N.

Media reports in Great Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial master, said Mugabe was being named an honorary “ambassador” or “envoy” — titles that the World Tourism Organization does not even bestow, according to the U.N.

The UNWTO controversy comes just days after U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for the suspension of international sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe since 2002.

"While it is difficult to disentangle the specific causes of Zimbabwe’s major social and economic ills, there seems little doubt that the existence of the sanctions regimes has, at the very least, acted as a serious disincentive to overseas banks and investors. ... Taken together, these and other unintended side effects will in turn inevitably have had a negative impact on the economy at large, with possibly quite serious ramifications for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable populations who have also had to cope with the political instability and violence as well as a severe drought,” Pillay said at a press conference at the end of her five-day visit to the country ahead of new elections that are expected within a year. 

“I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions on Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least until the conduct and outcome of the elections and related reforms are clear.”