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The not-so-diplomatic ambassador

The outspoken U.S. envoy to Zimbabwe has exposed political violence and raised pressure on the regime.

May 23, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — To Zimbabwe's government, James McGee is the undiplomatic diplomat.

McGee, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe for the last six months, has eschewed the tactful, almost invisible role that envoys often take. With foreign journalists largely blocked from covering events in the African nation, McGee and other Western diplomats have adopted an outspoken posture, exposing political violence and ratcheting up international pressure on the regime.

In turn, McGee has been savagely scolded in the state media, reprimanded by the government, harassed by police during a fact-finding mission and had a staff member threatened with assault. Zimbabwean officials accuse him of breaking the Vienna Convention on diplomats, interfering in its internal affairs and making politically charged and inflammatory comments.

Not that the government's adversaries have been immune from McGee's blunt criticisms. As opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai stayed in neighboring South Africa while his supporters back home were being beaten and harassed, McGee said he should be in Zimbabwe despite reports of a plot to assassinate him.

McGee, a thrice-decorated Vietnam veteran, traveled with diplomats from Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and Tanzania last week to a suspected torture center in the countryside where government opponents are alleged to have been interrogated and beaten. The previous week he and others visited Avenues Clinic in the capital, Harare, crowded with victims of the regime's violence against opposition activists and supporters.

McGee appears to have gotten under President Robert Mugabe's skin as much as his predecessor, Christopher Dell, who so outraged the regime that the pro-government Herald ran a front-page headline, "Mugabe to Dell: Go to Hell," which the envoy later framed. Dell was put under 24-hour surveillance, according to the Herald.

The day after McGee's fact-finding mission to the detention facility, during which police blocked his convoy for an hour and threatened to beat a member of his staff, the Herald prominently ran a letter describing the diplomat as a "political activist for the wrong cause" sent to "do Washington's dirty work in Zimbabwe."

Several days later, another Herald article said of the ambassador, who is African American: "Contrary to his delusions, McGee is not fighting for the democratization of Zimbabwe but is just a big player in the Uncle Tom role long conceived by America."

McGee dismissed the Herald criticisms, saying the paper was "nothing more than an instrument for vituperative and erroneous information."

His missions have played an important part in independently confirming the level of political violence after disputed elections in March, as well as intensifying diplomatic pressure on a regime that analysts and diplomats see as determined to cling to power. The ruling party lost control of parliament in the elections and Mugabe faces a runoff with Tsvangirai for the presidency, expected late next month.

McGee said there was conclusive "damning" evidence that the camp he visited with diplomats was an interrogation center, with small cells where people had been imprisoned overnight or longer. Though the cells were empty during the visit, McGee and his colleagues saw four books in which prisoners' names were logged.

"These notebooks contained some pretty damning evidence," McGee said in a telephone interview. "They had the names of the people. They had the interrogation methods used on these people. It said they were undergoing beatings.

"There were the names of the people they were looking for to interrogate. They were looking for a village head man. He's in hiding now. The book said, 'We want to find him and interrogate him because he didn't stop his people from voting for the MDC,' " he said, referring to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

During his visit to the Avenues Clinic he met a woman in her 80s who said she had been hit on the head with an ax by ruling party supporters because her grandchildren were associated with the MDC.

"The evidence in the hospital was even more damning," McGee said. "We had some horrific pictures of people who were horrendously beaten for political purposes, people who were beaten to within an inch of their life.

"This type of political violence just has to stop. It is getting out of control, and until it stops I don't think we need to talk about anything else in this country," he said.

McGee said that when he presented his credentials to Mugabe in November, the president invited him to travel around the country and see things for himself. "He said, 'If you find that things are bad, come back and report them to me.' "

The ambassador said his attempts to present the evidence from the fact-finding mission to Mugabe were ignored.

Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi recently told journalists in Harare that McGee was called in and reprimanded for making statements the government said were supportive of the MDC.

"This was clear interference in Zimbabwe's domestic affairs and in violation of the protocols governing diplomatic relations between states," Mumbengegwi said.

McGee said he and other Western diplomats made a point of inviting African envoys to fact-finding missions and similar events. Six Southern African diplomats had attended a function at his home where a 13-minute film on the violence was aired. He said there was no breach of the diplomatic rules.

"I and my colleagues in the diplomatic community talk about this often," he said. "How far can we go? We determine it according to the established rules and the Vienna Convention. We will stay within the boundaries of diplomatic behavior.

"We don't become involved in internal politics of a government, but that doesn't mean people can be beaten without us trying to figure out what's going on."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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