How UN covered cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe

ZIMBABWE, a potential economic powerhouse which critics say has been ruined under President Robert Mugabe’s rule, is heading for a potential turning point.

The Atlanta

A mostly peaceful, popular referendum on March 16 approved a relatively progressive draft constitution that includes a theoretically strong Bill of rights and general elections will likely be held later in the year.

But the past couple of months have also seen another, less noted development that adds an additional layer of ambiguity to the country’s future.

On February 26, a UN tribunal in Johannesburg, SA, determined that Georges Tadonki, the head of the UN’s Office for the
Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) 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 on-going electoral violence.

He was fired after Agostinho Zacarias, then the UN’s country chief in Zimbabwe and currently the UN Development Programme’s Resident Co-ordinator in South Africa, decided that his own closeness with Zanu PF overrode his responsibilities to the UN’s missions and values.

Yet Zacarias was actively abetted by officials at the UN headquarters in Turtle Bay, Manhattan in the US, who gave into his demands, which included the marginalisation 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 organisation 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 US and European legal procedure.

The UN-appointed judges found that Tadonki’s firing was the result of concentric layers of favouritism and bad faith, tendencies that defined not only the country head’s relationship with Mugabe’s government, but Turtle Bay’s apparently-backward view of the UN’s entire mission in Zimbabwe.

According to the tribunal, in addition to upholding the egalitarian values of the UN Charter, Zacarias’s job charged him with “speaking out about humanitarian issues and defending humanitarian principles”. In these respects, he was a clear failure.

He had a tight relationship with members of Mugabe’s Zanu PF ruling party.

According to Robert Amsterdam, who was one of Tadonki’s lawyers, Zacarias’ testimony revealed that he had known various Zanu PF leaders when they were based in Mozambique during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

According to the decision, during his posting in Zimbabwe, Zacarias “would spend most of his social time with Nicholas Goche, a Zanu PF politburo member and current Transport minister”.

This closeness spurred a wilful ignorance of the country’s deteriorating conditions.

In the run-up to the disastrous 2008 vote, “Zacarias seemed to not take cognisance of the fact that there was likely to be widespread and unprecedented violence,” despite the mobilisation of pro-Zanu PF paramilitary.

Even as pro-Mugabe militants savaged the opposition MDC and its supporters, Zacarias did his best to shield himself from the ruling party’s scrutiny, even if it meant discarding commonly-held humanitarian protocol.

“The bottom line,” the tribunal concludes, “is that the political agenda that Zacarias was engaged in with the government of Zimbabwe far outweighed any humanitarian concerns that Ocha (Tadonki’s office) may have had.”

In the report’s most scathing section, the judges explain that Zacarias’s closeness to the Zanu PF made it impossible for Tadonki to carry out his duties as the head of Ocha — a stance which had deep consequences for Zimbabweans counting on the UN’s assistance in the midst of a cholera epidemic and political emergency.

“There was a humanitarian drama unfolding and people were dying. Part of the population had been abandoned and subjected to repression. The issue between Tadonki and Zacarias was to what extent these humanitarian concerns should be exposed and addressed and the risk that there was of infuriating the Mugabe government,” reads part of the report.

“Matters started to sour when Tadonki started doing his job.
Zacarias preferred that he remain quiet. But if he remained quiet, Ocha at (the UN) headquarters would say he was not doing his job. Therefore, while silence would bring him trouble from Ocha, noise would infuriate Zacarias.

“When the applicant started organising a forum made up of the non-governmental organisations, the United Nations and the donors to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe with the approval of Zacarias and to achieve a common understanding of the humanitarian situation, Zacarias became angry.”

Tadonki didn’t stay silent, however, he “had the courage to inform the Ocha Headquarters in New York that Zimbabwe was on the brink of a humanitarian crisis while Zacarias was pretending to the contrary”.

Zacarias had undermined Tadonki at other points during the Ocha head’s brief yet eventful stint in Zimbabwe, most notably by convincing the Zimbabwean government not to approve residency accreditation for Tadonki’s wife and children, who were living in South Africa during his period of employment (covered in paragraph 163 of the ruling).

But Tadonki paid an additional and even deeper price for his willingness to warn Turtle Bay about Zimbabwe’s humanitarian plight — he was fired in January 2009, after he had warned of the potential ravages of the looming cholera outbreak, which was worsened by the electoral chaos and eventually killed over 4 000 people.

Tadonki was investigated by a UN bureaucrat at Zacarias’s behest, even when there was no proof of professional malfeasance.