Zimbabwe, a potential economic powerhouse ruined at the hands of one of the most restrictive and longest-tenured dictatorships on earth, is heading for a potential turning point. A mostly peaceful, popular referendum on March 16 approved a relatively progressive constitution that includes a theoretically strong bill of rights, and presidential elections will likely be held later in the year. But the current president is the 89-year-old Robert Mugabe, who took power in 1980 and has shown no subsequent appetite for giving it up. In 2008, his ZANU-PF party unleashed a wave of violent intimidation and repression after Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election to the Movement for Democratic Change's Morgan Tsvangarai, a crisis that only ended when the opposition agreed to a power-sharing scheme in which Mugabe essentially remained in charge. The upcoming election is another chance for the MDC to score an electoral victory over Mugabe -- but also a chance for ZANU-PF to violently cement its control.
The past couple months have seen another, less noted development that adds an additional layer of ambiguity to the country's future. On February 26th, a UN tribunal in Johannesburg determined that Georges Tadonki, the head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Zimbabwe in 2008, had been wrongfully fired from the UN after he attempted to warn headquarters of an oncoming cholera epidemic, whose severity was compounded by the ongoing electoral violence. He was fired after Agostinho Zacarias, then the UN's country chief in Zimbabwe and currently the UN Development Program's Resident Coordinator in South Africa, decided that his own closeness with ZANU-PF overrode his responsibility to the UN's missions and values. Yet Zacarias was actively abetted by officials in Turtle Bay, who gave into his demands, which included the marginalization and eventual firing of Tadonki, even as conditions inside Zimbabwe deteriorated. The case raises the question of just how the UN will perform in Zimbabwe if the events of 2008 repeat themselves -- or in the event that the country finally experiences its long sought-after democratic transition.
Tadonki brought a wrongful termination claim against the UN after the organization effectively fired him in early 2009. The UN's bulletproof legal immunity necessitates an unusual system for adjudicating such cases. Because the UN cannot be sued, tribunals convened by the UN itself deal with employment claims, pseudo-courts that don't adhere to several important aspects of accepted U.S. and European legal procedure.