- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
In between warnings of the impending race war, I see Drudge Report is prominently touting the headline "UN appoints Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe new envoy for tourism…" If true, this is some high-quality red meat for U.N.-bashers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem to be true.
The headline links to a Guardian story with the slightly more ambiguous headline, "Robert Mugabe asked to be UN ‘leader for tourism’."
Improbable as it seems, the Zimbabwean president, who is widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, terrorising opposition, controlling media and presiding over a collapsed economy, has been endorsed as a champion of efforts to boost global holidaymaking.
Despite that fact Mugabe, 88, is under a travel ban, he has been honoured as a "leader for tourism" by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, along with his political ally, Zambian president Michael Sata, 75. The pair signed an agreement with UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai at their shared border at Victoria Falls on Tuesday.
The story quotes several opposition figures decrying the fact that Mugabe has been named an "ambassador," but also notes that "UNWTO said it had not appointed Mugabe to any formal position but acknowledged he would receive an open letter like other heads of state who have joined its leaders for tourism campaign."
Is this really such an honor? Here’s how the UNWTO describes the "leaders for tourism" program:
UNWTO and WTTC will present an Open Letter to Heads of State and Government worldwide, highlighting the importance of Travel and Tourism. In turn, Heads of State and Government will accept this letter in acknowledgement of the relevance of travel and tourism in facing today’s global challenges.
Dozens of other heads of state, from countries including Mexico, South Africa, China, Ireland,Indonesia, Malaysia, Republic of Korea,Colombia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Burkina Faso, Armenia, Romania, Mozambique, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Thailand, Georgia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Phillipines, Seychelles, Serbia, Greece, Tunisia, and Gambia have signed on to the UNWTO’s "golden book of tourism" already. In other words, not a particularly exclusive list.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that a leader like Mugabe shouldn’t be invited to participate in such a program at all, or that the U.N. shouldn’t be encouraging tourists to visit countries like Zimbabwe, but "Robert Mugabe signs on to boilerplate U.N. agreement on promoting tourism" doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
In fact, the initial source of the "ambassador" claim seems to be the state-owned and not particularly reliable Herald newspaper in an article quoting the country’s own tourism minister. But now, thanks to the Guardian, then Drudge, and now FoxNews.com, Newser and others, the Mugabe regime’s propaganda version of events has acquired a veneer of truthiness. Gotta love the Internet news cycle.