Report of the Side Meeting:
Zimbabwe – Human Rights Council
Organized by CIVICUS, National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (NANGO), Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) and Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum on Thursday, 20 March, 2014, Palais de Nation
Framing the discussion
The Moderator, Renate Bloem, CIVICUS UN Representative in Geneva, introduced the meeting as a concrete example of the organization’s (CIVICUS’) commitment to provide a platform for civic society groups from around the world to engage in constructive dialogue. Bloem outlined that after 2013 elections in Zimbabwe, the country has witnessed a decline in cases of violence. However serious concerns still remain on restrictions related to civil liberties, including the right to free political participation, freedom of speech, association and assembly, especially the right to protest. Further, as Zimbabwe is due to undergo its UPR mid- term review, crucial issues remain outstanding, chief of which is the government’s willingness to genuinely engage the UN system and the wider international community. This meeting was organized to discuss the role the Human Rights Council can play to encourage human rights reforms in Zimbabwe and opportunities for civil society engagement with the government. The meeting came in the footsteps of a similar meeting the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum held on the sidelines of the 27th Session of the Africa Caribbean Pacific –EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly in France.
The panel which composed of Cephas Zinhumwe (Executive Director, NANGO), Arthur Gwagwa (Coordinator of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum’s International Office) and Dzikamai Bere (Transitional Justice Researcher at Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum) as well as the participants raised the following issues during the discussion:-
The New Constitution: The panelists welcomed the promulgation of the new Constitution of Zimbabwe but challenges remain as to its implementation. For example, the July 2013 elections organized under this new Constitution were not free and fair although the SADC and the AU as having been held in a free and fair manner endorsed them.
Zimbabwe in SADC and AU: The status and influence of Zimbabwe within SADC region and the African Union was discussed. Although the international community and CSOs did not endorse the July 2013 elections, SADC and AU endorsed these elections as having been free and fair. Currently, President Mugabe is the Vice Chairperson of both SADC and AU and next year, 2015 he will be the Chairperson of SADC and the AU, which raises credibility of both blocks.
Violence and Major Political Events: The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and some participants discussed that violence in Zimbabwe is not random, but is linked to major political events like elections. During this period, restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association and speech are heavily restricted. After the elections, people silently resign to the status quo. As evidenced in the last election, the election dispute resolution mechanisms provided for by the new constitution is subject to manipulation by political actors, hence failing to provide a solution to electoral disputes as desirable in Zimbabwe.
Silent Oppression after Elections: The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum argued that Zimbabwe was enjoying a veneer of democracy. After ZANU PF won the July 2013 elections, incidences of directly violence had decreased but the infrastructure of violence remained undisturbed which is a cause of concern. Structural violence continues to be perpetrated against the people of Zimbabwe. For example, it has employed technology to suppress freedoms, like restricting access to the Voters’ register; it has maintained weak institutions to arbitrate electoral disputes, restricted access to information, etc.
Arbitration of Electoral Disputes: The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum argued that the election dispute resolution mechanism provided for by the constitution was manipulated to bar potential litigation against the ZANU PF. For example, about 95 electoral petitions were filed after the elections but the Registrar of the Electoral Court set a condition requiring all petitioners to pay USD$10,000 security deposit, the majority of the petitioners failed to proceed with their petitions. This was a deliberate act by the Registrar of the Electoral Court to prevent judicial scrutiny of the election process. The Zimbabwe Human Commission raised concern over this matter. Such practice hinders peaceful resolution of conflicts, erodes the people’s confidence in the rule of law and creates unnecessary tension.
Human Rights Institutions: Some panelists welcomed the substance of the report of the Human Rights Commission of Zimbabwe after the elections but the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum regretted its conclusion that the election was free and fair. The Commission noted that the election management body was poorly resourced to handle an election of that magnitude, the process was in many instances chaotic, over 400 000 people could not exercise the right to vote, and there were report of some voters using fake voter slips. There was inadequate voter education while some CSO leaders were arrested for carried voter education. The panelists hoped that the Human Rights Commission itself would be capacitated and would perform its duties professionally and independently. On the issue of other institutions, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum said that, the government was reluctant to appoint the Commissioners of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, Zimbabwe Gender Commission and capacitating the Anti-Corruption Commission. Panelists encouraged the government of Zimbabwe to live up to its international obligations and its obligations to the Human Rights Council to ensure that the critical institutions are capacitated to discharge their mandate.
Oppressive Legislations: Some of the Panelists said that Zimbabwe is still maintaining oppressive legislations on its law books. For example, the Public Order and Security Act, 2009 heavily restricts CSOs right to associate and assemble. Under this Act, prior notice to the Police is required to be given by a convener of a meeting. Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum urged the government to live up to their commitment to the Human Rights Council to get rid of repressive laws and at the same time ratify important international instruments like the Convention Against Torture and further domesticate them as required by the new constitution.
Role of International Community:
Arthur Gwagwa lamented that the international community has done little to help the people of Zimbabwe, and as such, it has left Zimbabwe’s human rights agenda lagging behind. The international community and in particular the Human Rights Council should push the government of Zimbabwe to implement the outstanding provisions of the Constitution and the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The panelists and other participants said that, the international community should take note that while direct violence in Zimbabwe may seem to have subsided, structural violence is still embedded within the structures of government.
Economic Crisis: Some participants were of the view that corruption in Zimbabwe has contributed to the economic crisis more than the sanctions. Zimbabwe is not a poor country but it is one of the richest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with minerals but the local communities are still lacking the basic social services. Further, foreign actors have also contributed to the economic crisis. Foreign companies are engaged in the extractive sector but are themselves violating human rights. There must be international accountability for human rights especially in the extractive sector.
Participation of Youth and Women: Some participants raised the issue of encouraging the youth and women to participate in the affairs of government. However, some participants were also of the view that, when the environment to participate is not favorable, it will be difficult for the youth and women to participate.
Role of CSOs in Zimbabwe: The CSOs in Zimbabwe and Africa generally must cooperate to strengthen the human rights mechanisms in Africa e.g. revive SADC tribunal, the African Court, they must sustain dialogue within the international human rights mechanism, CSOs must be perennial at the UNHRC to promote accountability of governments in Africa, they must convene meetings with regional mechanisms e.g. AU, African Commission etc.
UPR Priorities: Zimbabwe is coming up for UPR review this year. Therefore, CSOs must start lobbying other countries, especially from Africa. Some of the panelists proposed aspects that should be the focus of the next Zimbabwe UPR. These are; to push the government of Zimbabwe to ratify the Convention Against Torture, harmonize its national laws in line with the Constitution, e.g. the Public Order and Security Act, appoint a Gender Commission, and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, strengthen the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission.
While citizens of Zimbabwe are not suffering from widespread physcial violence, or repressive governmental practices such as mass killings or toture, nonethless the government has a long way to go to gain more grounds in human rights and partipatory governance. The panelists expresed deep concern regarding Zimbawbwe’s state of ‘ thought‘ police, and the public fear of criticizing or opposing the government. Thus the main obstacles to citizen participation is intimidation and lack of confidence in systems that promote and protect the security of persons. In his segment Dzikamai Bere highlighted that such challenges are not sparodic, rather they are structural and engineered. This is evidence that the government still has a lot to do towards a human rights policy that is in harmony with the recommendations oft he Human Rights Council.
The question that arises as elections draw nearer ‘ How can there be the expectation of having a fair election in a country where freedom of thought, opinion and association are extremely limited?‘ There is no doubt the government has to regain legitimacy through elections. Morever, the Anti-Corruption Commission must be taken seriously and not exist only as rhetoric. Such transformative changes through elections, and law reforms can only be progressive if the people of Zimbabwe are involved in the process.
In conclusion, the panelists presented practical alternatives and solutions to the current situation in Zimbabwe:
- Strengthening HR mechanisms in the region as a whole and not only the country
- Preventative measures must be created in order to move beyond the current defensive position.
- Participation of young people in order for them not to continue being tools for politicians
- Making HR institutions more enabling and empowering to ordinary citizens
- Linking with the reigional structures and solving the current disconnects between regional, national and international interventions.
- Finding transformative approaches to the elections
- Strengthening election dispute resolution mechanisms
- Recognize that African transformation is beyond the individual and more about institutions being reformed
- Gain solidarity by discussing national issues in a regional context