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How Mugabe is using the African Union to protect himself from Western prosecution

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends an award ceremony in Harare on June 4, 2014.

TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Robert Mugabe is so loathed by the West that he is officially barred from entering Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. His assets have been frozen in Western financial institutions, and he is subject to an arms embargo.

But none of that matters to Africa's top politicians. They have just chosen the 90-year-old Zimbabwean autocrat to be chairman of the bloc of Southern African nations, known as SADC. And in January, in a supreme gesture of defiance, they are expected to anoint Mr. Mugabe as the new chairman of the African Union.

Because of the travel ban, Mr. Mugabe won't be able to represent Africa at summits with Western leaders or investors. These days, however, Africa is so focused on its BRICS partners – China, India, Russia and Brazil – that it feels little need to curry favor with the European Union or the United States.

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Mr. Mugabe, of course, is not the first authoritarian president to win the AU's most prestigious job. Previous chairman of the AU have included Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Equatorial Guinea dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – two of the most brutal and corrupt autocrats in recent African history.

Mr. Mugabe, who has a long history of human rights abuses and rigged elections in Zimbabwe, was named the first vice-chairman of the AU's executive last January. That puts him in line to become the AU chairman at the next major summit in January. The selection process is typically opaque and mysterious, but the top post is rotated among various African countries without regard to their records on human rights or democracy.

Although the AU leadership is mostly a symbolic job, it would be naïve to think that Mr. Mugabe won't use the position to advance his own cause. Consider how he used his lobbying power inside SADC to get rid of a troublesome court, known as the SADC Tribunal, which had dared to rule against him.

The tribunal, set up in 2005, had proven surprisingly independent. It became the only regional court for human rights cases in Southern Africa. Within a few years, it embarrassed Mr. Mugabe by ruling against his policy of evicting white farmers from their land in Zimbabwe. So he retaliated by mobilizing support among his SADC colleagues and getting new rules introduced to prohibit the tribunal from hearing cases from individual citizens. Those rules were quietly approved at a SADC summit on Mr. Mugabe's home turf in Zimbabwe this week.

From now on, the tribunal will only handle legal disputes among SADC's member states. Since these disputes are almost non-existent, the tribunal will fade into meaninglessness.

Even this decision was hidden behind closed doors at the summit – just the way Mr. Mugabe and his friends like it. Journalists pieced together the decision several days later, but officially SADC released only a brief communiqué at the end of its summit on Monday, with a single vague sentence on the tribunal.

The communiqué said merely that the summit had received a report "relating to progress on negotiating a new Protocol on the SADC Tribunal" and it had "adopted the new Protocol on the SADC Tribunal." It gave no details of this "Protocol." That's the bureaucratic stonewalling that many African regimes prefer.

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The AU, like its Southern African affiliate, holds its key meetings in private and issues only the blandest of statements. It makes occasional stabs at promoting democracy, especially in smaller and weaker nations such as Madagascar (suspended from the AU after a coup). But it never challenges the rule of authoritarian regimes such as those in Angola, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, Gabon, Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea – or Libya in the Gadhafi era. These regimes, in fact, have enjoyed substantial power within the AU structures, often holding top positions in the AU system.

Over the past year, the AU has shown its true colors. It demanded that African leaders should be immune from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. It announced its own "African Court of Justice and Human Rights" as a direct challenge to the International Criminal Court. And while it issued lofty statements about how this new African Court would protect the human rights of ordinary Africans, it made sure to add a clause ensuring that every African head of state would be exempt from prosecution.

This is not just an academic issue. Two of Africa's presidents – Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya – are already facing charges at the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, including mass murder. If the AU succeeds in its strategy, these leaders would gain immunity as long as they hold office. The most powerful Africans would be free to abuse human rights without any possibility of legal challenge.

Mr. Mugabe himself is sometimes mentioned as a possible target for prosecution by the International Criminal Court. As chairman of the AU next year, he will be in a stronger position to use the AU to protect his power – as he already has done in Southern Africa by demolishing the tribunal that dared to challenge him.

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