Harare, 25 May 2012
“Good morning and thank you for coming – and I wish you a Happy Africa Day.
This is the first ever visit to Zimbabwe by any High Commissioner for Human Rights. I thank the the Government for inviting me, and believe the fact that such an invitation has been forthcoming does in itself have some significance, since human rights have over the years been one of the most contentious issues concerning Zimbabwe both nationally and internationally.
It is rare that I spend five days on an official country visit, as I have done here. Yet, I would like to stress from the outset that I am wary of drawing too many conclusions, given that I have seen little of the country beyond the centre of Harare, and I am well aware that many of the most serious problems are affecting people in the remoter rural areas.
Another reason why I am wary is that I am aware that there are two dramatically opposing narratives. Despite the existence of the Inclusive Government, involving the three main political parties, which is a product of the extremely important Global Political Agreement (GPA) brokered by SADC in September 2008, the polarization in Zimbabwe – everyone agrees – is still extremely pronounced.
This polarization is acting as a major impediment on a number of fronts, including the advancement of human rights. Concern is also rising both inside and outside the country that, unless the parties agree quickly on some key major reforms and there is a distinct shift in attitude, the next election which is due some time in the coming year could turn into a repeat of the 2008 elections which resulted in rampant politically motivated human rights abuses, including killings, torture, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detention, displacements and other violations. On a more positive note, several people told me they believe that if the country can get through the next 18 months or so without another political and human rights disaster, then it could finally turn the corner towards renewed stability and prosperity.
In the spirit of the invitation I have received, I held extensive and cordial meetings with President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – the principals of two of the three parties in the Inclusive Government. I also held discussions with the Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs, Minister of Labour and Social Services, and the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs. And, just a few minutes ago, I wrapped up my final meeting with the Minister of Lands and Rural Settlements and the Minister of Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development. I saw the President of the Senate on Tuesday – the Speaker of Parliament was unfortunately unavailable – together with the Parliamentary Thematic Committee on Human Rights, and the Chief Justice. In retrospect -- given the very serious economic issues facing the country, including sanctions, insufficient development funding, inadequate public services, unemployment, loss of productivity, massive emigration and corruption -- I wish I had also requested a meeting with the Minister of Finance. This would also have helped improve the political balance of my meetings with Ministers.
I held three separate meetings with civil society organizations, and one with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. I also had a joint meeting with the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption, Electoral and Media Commissions – the first time all three of these Commissions have met one another -- as well as with the diplomatic community and UN colleagues here in Harare.
Most of my interlocutors noted there had been improvements, including some very significant ones, since 2008, when the country seemed to be on the brink of catastrophe. For one thing hyperinflation – which at one point hit 231 million percent -- has been conquered by the adoption of the multi-currency exchange system and the economy has stabilized and begun to grow.
Yesterday, I took part in the Inaugural Summit of GlobalPOWER Women Network Africa which is being held here in Harare, and was pleased to learn that Zimbabwe has made significant progress on combatting HIV and AIDS, despite an otherwise alarming decline in the country’s medical services. The overall HIV prevalence rate has almost halved from 23.7 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2009, although the drop in female prevalence was only marginal (from 7.61 percent to 6.7 percent).
One very good achievement on the women’s rights front is that half of the Supreme Court judges are now female, and there are a number of women ministers and senior public officials. I believe the government has a sincere commitment to boosting the number of women in key positions in the public sector, yet entrenched legal anomalies remain, such as the fact that women still need their husbands’ permission and signature to acquire a passport.
But women have been faring far less well in some other spheres: maternal mortality has worsened steadily over the past two decades from 283 deaths per 100,000 births in 1994 to around 960 per 100,000 in 2010-2011. The figure has risen by more than 40 percent in the past six years alone. One factor in this disturbing deterioration is believed to be the charging of “user fees” for treatment in clinics. Such fees are simply beyond the means of many women and as a result, they sometimes do not even consider giving birth in a hospital or clinic. I also heard stories of women in labour having to walk as much as 20 kilometres to find medical care because they could not afford transport.
Women’s groups, and the relevant United Nations agencies, believe that sexual, domestic and politically motivated violence against women are also widespread and on the rise, especially around election times. Zimbabwe has the necessary legal framework for dealing with these crimes, but – like many other aspects of the legal system – the relevant laws are not being implemented properly. Many women are reluctant to report violence because they have lost trust in the police. Little effort appears to have been made to establish how many women were subjected to sexual violence around the time of the 2008 elections, and even though the identity of a number of the alleged perpetrators is known, there has reportedly been little or no attempt to investigate, arrest and prosecute.
In stark contrast, human rights defenders, journalists and political activists have been arrested and charged on a regular basis. Even Councillors and Members of Parliament from the MDC –T party has been arrested and charged under Section 33 of the Criminal Code (a provision dealing with “insulting or undermining the authority of the president”). I believe this legislation should be repealed. Section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act is also seriously misused by prosecutors who employ it to block release after bail has been granted, and are not required to provide any reason for their action. I believe this legislation should be amended to protect against its frequent misuse for political purposes, especially during the run-up to elections.
The corrosive effect of these laws, and of other forms of past and current -- albeit lower level -- harassment and intimidation of political party activists, including restrictions on their right to freedom of assembly, is deeply worrying.
I have heard much concern expressed about the role of the military, including a recent statement by one of the country’s most senior army officers suggesting the army should throw its weight behind one political party – when for any country to be called a democracy, its army must observe strict political neutrality. As the GPA clearly says, “State organs and institutions do not belong to any political party and should be impartial in the discharge of their duties.”
One very positive development during my visit has been the news that the government is proposing to sign and ratify the international treaty known as the Convention against Torture. I warmly welcome this development which was one of the 130 recommendations made by other states, and accepted by Zimbabwe, during last year’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During my meetings with the Government, I have stressed my willingness to provide technical support in its efforts to fulfil those recommendations. This is a service we offer to many States as they enter the second cycle of this new and extremely important inter-governmental process, which has had a 100 percent buy-in by all 193 UN Member States. I have also urged the government to take a second look at the other 47 recommendations which it rejected, since I believe some of these are of great importance to Zimbabwe’s future.
In my meetings with the Government, I have drawn attention to various pieces of legislation that infringe on journalists’ right to freedom of expression, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and the Public Order and Security Act. I believe all three need to be amended to ensure that they are brought in line with international human rights laws and standards.
I note also that, out of the four very important Commissions set up by the government to deal with major issues highlighted in the GPA, the Zimbabwe Media Commission has been receiving a lot of criticism. I was very struck, during my meeting with the three thematic Commissions, that the Media Commission seemed much more concerned with controlling and censoring media than with promoting freedom of expression. I fully agree with the members of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission who pointed out that the success of their work to ensure free and fair elections will depend to quite some degree on the media disseminating information properly and in an unbiased form to the general public.
Many people I have spoken to have expressed great concern about the perceived strong political bias of the State-run broadcast media, and the refusal of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe to grant licenses to private radio and TV stations, thereby preserving a politicized monopoly that holds particular sway in rural areas. Opening up the market to non-state TV and radio stations might help to stimulate more balanced and better quality news by providing competition. While the newspapers have benefitted from greater freedom, they both reflect and feed the extreme political polarization.
Some media also systematically denigrate human rights defenders who are simply going about their job of trying to help promote and protect the human rights of ordinary Zimbabweans. A vibrant civil society is a crucial part of any democratic society’s development, in all spheres including human rights, and it should be strongly supported even if some of its messages make uncomfortable reading for those in authority. I am also disturbed by reports that some of the humanitarian agencies are not allowed to operate in certain parts of the country – notably Masvingo and Mashonaland -- which means that aid, including food aid, is not in all cases being delivered on the basis of need.
I have also been disturbed by the country’s legislation on the subject of LGBT (sexual orientation). The all-important international principle of non-discrimination is included in the current Constitution, as well as in international treaties to which Zimbabwe is a party. There can be no justification for violence, harassment or stigmatization. And criminalization of any group because of their sexual orientation can lead to impediments to their accessing basic services – in other words result in clear-cut discrimination – including treatment for HIV. Sexual relations between consenting adults is not a matter for the courts.
My views on the issue of land reform have been oversimplified in some media reports.
I dealt with this issue in some detail in a speech I made yesterday at the University of Zimbabwe,* so I will not dwell on it too much here, except to say that I support the basic principle of land reform, and I am happy that many small farmers have now managed to acquire viable farms. The pride and enthusiasm of some of the small farmers I met, including several women, was a pleasure to see, and I hope the government will fulfil its promises to help them makes their farms productive and profitable. It is important to remember however that some aspects of the land reform process also caused a great deal of misery, not just to former owners evicted without due process or compensation, but also to tens of thousands of farm workers who lost their jobs, were evicted and in many cases reduced to total destitution overnight.
It is vital that such a process is carried out transparently and with clear criteria that are in full accordance with international norms and standards. The GPA contains an agreement to conduct a non-partisan land audit to establish accountability and eliminate multiple farm ownerships. There is, after all, no merit in taking sizeable quantities of land from one elite, only to give it another. Under the GPA, the parties also agreed to ensure that all eligible citizens who want to have land can do so, and that each individual will be considered without bias. I urge the Inclusive Government to take further steps to carry out these and other key reforms laid down in the GPA.
My speech at the University also covered a range of important issues in the realm of economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to food, education, health and adequate housing, and issues such as forced evictions, sanctions, good governance and the need to fight corruption. Issues relating to water and food production are particularly concerning with the country suffering from a severe drought. In addition, as a result of inadequate safe water supplies and sanitation in some areas, cholera outbreaks which used to take place once a decade now occur on an annual basis.
Reverting to the subject of elections, which is on everyone’s mind, I have congratulated both President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangiri on their recent strong public calls for people to avoid resorting to violence, and I urge the leadership of all three parties to continue to make such loud and unambiguous calls at regular intervals, so that the message is clearly heard again and again that none of the country’s political leaders condones or encourages such behaviour.
One matter of concern has been the long, drawn-out process of agreeing a new Constitution as laid down in the GPA. I understand there is some hope that this may be nearing a conclusion. The Constitution is obviously crucial, and I hope it will contain a Bill of Rights that is in full compliance with international human rights law.
I believe that it is essential that a satisfactory new Constitution with an entrenched Bill of Rights is in place soon, so that the referendum to confirm it and all the electoral reforms necessary for a peaceful, free and fair election can be carried out before people go to the polls. Realistically this will take time, but it will be more important to get it right than to rush the process. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s role is extremely important and I hope it is given all the assistance it needs to carry out its sensitive and vital tasks such as updating the electoral roll, delimiting constituencies, supervising registration and supervising the Constitutional Referendum and the elections, while maintaining strict independence from any of the political parties.
I welcome the fact that Zimbabwe has established a Human Rights Commission – a type of national institution governed by a rigorous international set of standards -- and appointed its members in 2010, and I deeply regret the fact that the bill that would enable it to function properly is currently still stuck in Parliament. The main obstruction to its progress is a dispute over its temporal limitation, i.e. whether or not it should cover historical events prior to 2009. My strong advice to the political leaders and parliamentarians has been that – like most other Human Rights Commissions around the world -- it should not become involved in historical investigations. Debate on this issue must not be allowed to continue to hold up this vital body, whose members have been existing in a sort of operational limbo for more than two years now. Instead it should deal with the many pressing issues that face Zimbabwe today and in the future, and in particular all the human rights issues surrounding the forthcoming elections.
I stress that this does not mean that past human rights violations such as the devastating large-scale killings and other violations in Matabeleland and Midlands in the 1980s, or the 2008 election violence should be swept under the carpet. Far from it. There should never be impunity for serious crimes, and justice is essential if peace and stability are to endure. However, this would be too great a task for the Human Rights Commission, whose prime role is to deal with current and future human rights situations, to advise the government and parliament, to help draft human-rights-friendly legislation and to accept and assess complaints from members of the public as well as to promote and protect human rights in general. Instead, I have urged all parties to consider setting up another body or bodies – such as a Truth and Reconciliation Committee or a Commission of Inquiry – to look at major human rights violations that took place some time ago.
Finally, I would like to turn to a highly controversial issue that has come up again and again during my visit here, namely the various limited sanctions regimes that some countries have imposed on Zimbabwe over the past decade or so. The continuation of sanctions is now opposed by all three parties that make up the Inclusive Government, and I have yet to hear a single Zimbabwean inside the country say they definitely think sanctions should continue. The reason for this is a perception that sanctions, which were targeted at various named individuals and companies, are in fact having a wider impact on the general population. While it is difficult to disentangle the specific causes of Zimbabwe’s major social and economic ills, there seems little doubt that the existence of the sanctions regimes has, at the very least, acted as a serious disincentive to overseas banks and investors. It is also likely that the stigma of sanctions has limited certain imports and exports. Taken together, these and other unintended side-effects will in turn inevitably have had a negative impact on the economy at large, with possibly quite serious ramifications for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable populations who have also had to cope with the political instability and violence as well as a severe drought.
The issues relating to the individuals targeted by the sanctions will I hope – assuming there is sufficient evidence – one day be sorted out in a court of law, which is the proper place to deal with serious crimes. In the meantime, I would urge those countries that are currently applying sanctions on Zimbabwe to suspend them, at least until the conduct and outcome of the elections and related reforms are clear.
Zimbabwe is a country which everyone recognizes should be one of the most prosperous and highly developed on the African continent. Instead, it is beset by a difficult political climate, drought, sanctions, and an unfortunate history of human rights violations and impunity for those who have committed them. It is calmer now, but still beset by uncertainty and fear about what the future may hold. But there is also some optimism, because there has been progress, and the GPA and the Inclusive Government have – despite all the delays and unfinished business -- created some positive momentum which could lead to increased stability and prosperity.
I hope that this is indeed the way forward, and promise to do what I and my staff can in order to help all Zimbabweans realize their fundamental human rights.
(*) Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12191&LangID=e
UN Human Rights, country page – Zimbabwe: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/ZWIndex.aspx
For more information or media requests, please contact Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9383 / firstname.lastname@example.org).
UN Human Rights, followPP us on social media:
Join us to speak up for human rights in Rio+20, use #RightsRio