The blogosphere has been aflame for the last day or so, as news broke that the United Nations had become a self-parody. The culprit: the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO, not to be confused with the WTO), who had confirmed many clichés by appointing President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as a “Tourism Ambassador”. While I tend to instinctively push back on critiques of the UN, I’ve been known to have to just shake my head at some of the choices the body and its subsidiaries make, and this one seems pretty outrageous.
Or is it? There’s a bit more nuance to the story than you can easily get across in 140 characters, and so I present to you an adaptation of the game “Two Truths and a Lie”. Like game itself, there are portions of this story that are accurate and one that is not. I’d like to clarify between them.
Truth: The UNWTO has named Zimbabwe as a Co-Host of its next General Assembly
At the end of the last meeting of the UNWTO in October of last year, the Member States bid to see who would win the distinction of hosting the next General Assembly meeting in 2013. In the end, the bid was won by both Zimbabwe and Zambia in a co-hosting role. How did this happen? As it turns out, the UNWTO’s decisions are implemented by the Executive Council, which is made up of 20% of the body, and seats apportioned by geography. Zimbabwe has utilized this distribution to gain a seat on the Executive Council, and further leveraged that seat to gain its Co-Host status. Zimbabwe is determined to use the opportunity to revitalize its image abroad.
The truth of the matter is that Zimbabwe should be playing no such host role, even if it is shared, and even if it is with so minor a body as the UNWTO. The repression and economic mismanagement of the Mugabe government is ongoing, and shows no sign of stopping. Promised reforms have yet to materialize almost a decade after a “power sharing” agreement kept Mugabe in his chair, and will not halt after the UNWTO Assembly has completed. This isn’t even comparable to the outrage expressed around North Korea’s Presidency of the UN Conference on Disarmament, as at least that was due to alphabetic rotation. The Member States have willing chosen Zimbabwe to serve as a co-host, a folly at best.
Truth: The United States never joined the UNWTO, nor should it ever
The United States never opted to join up with the UNWTO after its founding in 1970, nor its predecessor the International Union of Official Travel Organisations. This choice was probably for the best. Don’t get me wrong, the goals of the UNWTO are admirable, in particular their desire to promote sustainability and use tourism as a means to reduce poverty under the Millennium Development Goals. The agency likewise has over 400 “Affiliate Members”, mostly private sector representatives, who take part in the General Assemblies and bring together the public and private spheres.
However, that is about as far as my praise goes. While I promote the necessity of the United Nations as a whole, I do not believe that every agency and body within the UN system is of an equal standing or equal importance. The World Tourism Organization is one of the few bodies that I honestly believe would serve absolutely zero United States interests if we were to join up. Membership in a multilateral organization would do little to further enhance the US’ current standing as the second most visited country in the world. Nor would taking part in UNWTO meetings on ethical tourism likely have much of an impact on US policy.
Lie: Robert Mugabe was named a UN Tourism Ambassador
The main outrage that is being expressed is not at the host status of Zimbabwe, but the belief that the UN has named him a “Tourism Ambassador”. Here’s where the story breaks down. As noted by the UNWTO itself over its Twitter account, there is no such position that is being offered or has been offered at any point. So where did the notion come from?
The earliest use of the term I can find tracks back to this blog post that went up nearly a week ago from the Heritage Foundation. While they make several accurate points, the link that Mr. Brett Schaefer provides to cite his usage of the term “Tourism Ambassador” gives no evidence to back him up. The title was destined to sit idly until it exploded yesterday; gaining new life once the Guardian picked up on the meme, albeit in a slightly more muted form, which was then listed on the Drudge Report.
In reality, the UNWTO sent out an open letter to the Heads of State and Government of its Member States, asking them to sign onto the relevance of travel and tourism to today’s economic challenges. As Joshua Keating notes, those that have responded includes: “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, Philippines, Seychelles, Serbia, Greece, Tunisia, and Gambia”. This is hardly the singling out of Mugabe that assigning an honorary “Ambassadorship” would entail.
In summation, the meme that a “Tourism Ambassadorship” was given to Mugabe is patently false. I myself took part in spreading it on Twitter yesterday, before becoming aware of the actual situation. In truth, there are definitely reasons to be upset about the role that’s been granted Zimbabwe at the UNWTO. There’s no need to make up fake ones.