A Law That Fails to Catch Mugabe Is Pointless: It's OK to Assassinate Dictators, but Not to Prosecute Them

By Tatchell, Peter | New Statesman (1996), January 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Law That Fails to Catch Mugabe Is Pointless: It's OK to Assassinate Dictators, but Not to Prosecute Them


Tatchell, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe cannot be arrested for the crime of torture, according to Judge Timothy Workman. As a serving head of state, he has "absolute immunity" from criminal charges under both British and international law.

Judge Workman's verdict, delivered on 14 January at Bow Street Magistrates' Court, rejected my application for a warrant for the arrest and extradition of the Zimbabwean leader on charges of torture. Under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which incorporates the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture into UK law, anyone who commits, authorises, colludes, acquiesces or condones acts of torture anywhere in the world can be prosecuted in Britain. But not, apparently, presidents and prime ministers who orchestrate some of the world's worst human rights abuses. Protected by the doctrine of state immunity, they are, the judge ruled, legally untouchable.

Had a warrant been granted, President Mugabe could have been arrested and extradited to Britain if he set foot in any of the 100-plus countries with which Britain has an extradition treaty. These include countries he has visited over the past year and is likely to visit again, such as Switzerland, France, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and South Africa. The judge's decision gives Mugabe and other heads of state a free band to torture with impunity, denying justice to thousands of victims. It highlights the inadequacies of British and international human rights legislation. What is the point of having anti-torture laws if the main abusers--heads of state--are exempt from prosecution? We may as well tear up Section 134 and the UN Convention Against Torture, and chuck them in the bin. They offer no protection or redress to people who are tortured at the behest of heads of state.

Judge Workman's ruling followed the precedent set by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002. In a case concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo v Belgium, the court ruled that high state officials are immune from legal action even if they commit the most heinous crimes against humanity.

Despite this decision, evolving customary international law increasingly no longer accepts the right of heads of state to enjoy absolute immunity for grave human rights abuses such as torture. …

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