November 23, 2022
By A. Edward Elmendorf, Past President, UNA-NCA

At its annual celebration of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 9, UNA-NCA will honor Dr. Kelebogile Zvobgo as an Emerging Human Rights Leader. Her distinguished record of scholarship, media appearances, and advocacy make clear that Dr. Zvobgo is more than an emerging human rights leader: She is one already! Her name tells us a lot in the languages of Southern Africa: Kelebogile means “I am grateful'' in the Setswana language, and Zvobgo means “That which has always been” in the Shona language.

Dr. Zvobgo’s human rights commitments have deep roots in her family.  She was born into a political family in her native Zimbabwe. Her uncle Eddison was an ally of Mugabe during the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe and became a government minister. But he came to challenge Mugabe’s policies, and he was almost killed in a suspicious car accident. Dr. Zvobgo was a small child at the time, and found that family members, and others in Zimbabwe, didn’t want to talk about this and other incidents of what can be called “political violence.”  This led her to ask how societies can hold violent actors accountable. Her commitment led then to scholarship and advocacy on human rights, transitional justice, and international law and courts. She pursued an undergraduate degree at Pomona College and earned her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. She recently began as an Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

It’s not surprising that Dr. Zvobgo has found the work of the United Nations on human rights important to her, both personally and professionally.  As a younger person, she wanted to be a diplomat within the UN.  She saw then, and continues to see, the UN as an agent for human rights, peace and development. “It is an institution the world needs,” she says, “from developed to developing countries, from democracies to non-democracies, from the Global North to the Global South.” She found Model UN and visits to the UN in New York, Geneva, and beyond to be truly eye-opening experiences.

Family members and experiences contributed also to Dr. Zvobgo’s engagement with the United Nations. Her aunt Sheila Tlou served as Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa for UNAIDS following service as Minister of Health for Botswana. But Dr. Zvobgo decided to become an academic so that she could, as she says, “Be of service to governments, international organizations like the United Nations, and to civil society groups and movements.” She observes that all of these kinds of actors have roles to play in advancing democracy, human rights and peace. Her engagements with UN organizations on human rights go well beyond the United Nations itself. She directed detailed research on the World Bank and human rights, and then authored a peer-reviewed article on the Bank’s role as an enforcer of human rights – a unique perspective on an entity whose charter (or Article of Agreement as it is called formally) requires that only economic considerations shall be relevant to its decision-making.
In light of Dr. Zvobgo’s background in a political family it’s not surprising also that family members have been an important source of inspiration for her human rights work. She tells us that her mother has been a huge source of strength and inspiration. Her mother, Kebokile, co-founded the women’s rights NGO Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA).  WLSA works on gender justice and equity, provides legal aid and support, and assists with gender rights education and capacity building in Zimbabwe’s legal system – certainly large challenges given the struggles under way to protect and promote human rights in the country.  WLSA activists are, she says, change agents. “It’s organizations like WLSA that are at the heart of people power movements. They fight every day, at great cost, in politically perilous conditions, to make human rights and dignity a reality for all.”  Inspiration came not only from her mother but also from her father, Chengetai, who inspired her academic career and taught her the importance of grit and hard work.  Her father was a historian, and she learned from him that societies have to grapple with the past in order to step into the future.  A deep commitment to transitional justice emerged. 

Never give up!  That’s the advice given by Dr. Zvobgo to young people committed to human rights.  Whatever you are doing, she says, NEVER GIVE UP! “The story of humanity is a story of political struggle. Nothing is a given, and what’s won can be lost.  We must always be agitating for a better world.” Dr. Zvobgo’s life exemplifies this spirit, and it demonstrates what can and should motivate UN Association members to advocacy and action, whether through an academic career as she has done, or in other ways, as volunteers and community leaders.

Since she came to the College of William & Mary in 2019, Dr. Zvobgo has created a human rights community at the College. She has brought many human rights scholars, practitioners, and activists to the College, she has offered classes on human rights and transitional justice, and she has served as mentor in the support of undergraduate research.  Her work has inspired a number of her students to pursue careers in human rights.
Asked what she is most proud of in her career, thus far, Dr. Zvobgo talks of her research, for how it has made its way into curriculums around the world, into the news, in human rights practitioner reports, and onto policy makers’ desks and briefing books.  “My work,” she says, “Is not meant to stay in the Ivory Tower, but to be of use and of service to my local and global community.” Still, she says, it’s her students who will be her legacy.
It is a privilege to greet Dr. Zvobgo as a new member of the UNA-NCA human rights community, and to welcome her as recipient of the 2022 UNA-NCA Emerging Human Rights Leader Award.

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