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WOZA gets Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award - Peace Watch
November 28, 2009

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for WOZA and Mahlangu

For 41 years the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights has worked for a more peaceful and just world. On Monday evening in a ceremony at the White House Magodonga Mahlangu and WOZA, represented by WOZA co-founder Jenni Williams, were presented with the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award by President Barack Obama and Mrs Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy. In remarks before presenting the awards President Obama explained that the late Bobby Kennedy's legacy "wasn't a devotion to one particular cause, or a faith in a certain ideology -- but rather, it was a sensibility. A belief that in this world, there is right and there is wrong, and it is our job to build our laws and our lives around recognizing the difference. A sensitivity to injustice so acute that it can't be relieved by the rationalizations that make life comfortable for the rest of us -- that others' suffering is not our problem, that the ills of the world are somehow not our concern. A moral orientation that renders certain people constitutionally incapable of remaining a bystander in the face of evil -- a sensibility that recognizes the power of all people, however humble their circumstances, to change the course of history. Those are the traits of Bobby Kennedy that this award recognizes -- the very traits that define the character and guide the life of this year's recipient."

About the Award

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, former US Attorney-General, and a younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for the US Presidency. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, instituted in 1984, honours human rights defenders throughout the world who stand up against injustice. The annual award includes on-going legal, advocacy and technical support for a six-year period through a partnership with the RFK Centre. Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, explained at the ceremony: "The RFK Centre for Justice and Human Rights defends heroes who are the champions of justice - the Martin Luther King's and Cesar Chavez's of their countries. People who face imprisonment, torture and death in the quest for protection of human rights. We partner with them for a six year period and provide capacity building, strategic advocacy and alliance opportunities to help achieve laureates' social justice goals.....The worst form of abuse, say survivors of torture, is not the beatings and the cattle prods, but the taunt by wardens that you are alone. Forgotten. No one cares. This year's RFK human rights award laureates have been collectively tortured too often to remember and imprisoned more than one hundred times. So, Magodonga and Jenni, I want you to know, that, from this day forward, you will never be alone. Today is the beginning of a long term partnership. Look around this room. No matter what the bullies do, we will stand with you, shoulder to shoulder in your struggle for women's rights, peace and justice." [Full text of this speech and of Magodonga and Jenni's acceptance speeches available on request]

About WOZA

WOZA [Women of Zimbabwe Arise and also an Ndebele word meaning 'come forward'], formed in 2003 as a women's civic movement, now has a countrywide membership of over 70,000 women and men. It aims are to:

  • Provide women, from all walks of life, with a united voice to speak out on issues affecting their day-to-day lives.
  • Empower female leadership that will lead community involvement in pressing for solutions to the current crisis.
  • Encourage women to stand up for their rights and freedoms.
  • Lobby and advocate on those issues affecting women and their families.

WOZA bases its action on the principles of strategic non-violence, aiming to create space to allow Zimbabweans to articulate issues they may be too fearful to raise alone. WOZA has conducted hundreds of protests since 2003 and over 3,000 women and men have spent time in police custody, many more than once and most for 48 hours or more. Many have been assaulted during demonstrations, savagely beaten in police cells and had threats made against their lives. Some of their members have died as a result of their ill-treatment.

Williams and Mahlangu due in court again on 7th December

For over a year now Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu have been appearing in the magistrates court in Bulawayo on a charge of disturbing the peace in contravention of section 37(1)(a) of the Criminal Law Code. They were arrested in October last year following a peaceful WOZA demonstration calling on the government to provide food aid for all. They spent three weeks in Mlondolozi Prison outside Bulawayo before being released on bail. The proceedings are currently stalled awaiting the Supreme Court's long-delayed judgment on their application to have the section of the Code under which they are charged declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court heard legal arguments in June, but the early decision expected has not materialised. As the court vacation starts on 3rd December, judgment may not be handed down until the next term, which commences in January. This means the magistrates court proceedings will probably have to be postponed again.

Right to Demonstrate Not Yet Recognised

WOZA's experience at the hands of the police over the last six years illustrates the ingrained hostility of some police and government authorities to the constitutional right of freedom of assembly, which embraces the right to demonstrate. This hostility still exists in spite of the amendments made to the Public Order and Security Act in January 2008, amendments which had been agreed by ZANU-PF and both MDC formations and were intended to open up democratic space for the expression of differing viewpoints. These amendments make it clear that breaking up a demonstration, even one not notified to the police in advance, should be a last resort, not the immediate knee-jerk reaction. The amendments also lay down strict rules for the use of force by police when dispersing a demonstration [where dispersal is really necessary in the interests of preventing damage to property or injury to persons.]

In July, the Government announced that it had directed police not to hinder citizens from demonstrating. Co-Home Affairs Minister Giles Mutsekwa [MDC-T] insisted that police had been instructed to allow people to demonstrate within the confines of the law. He said "the Ministry does not deny anyone from taking part in peaceful demonstrations. Let it be known to all and sundry that demonstrations are allowed in Zimbabwe." and added "Only on rare occasions will police resort to the use of minimum force to deal with unlawful public gatherings" and those who do resort to the use of "minimum force" do so "within the precincts of their mandate".

Doubts about the effectiveness of the Ministry's directions to the police are justified by events since July. An example is what happened in Bulawayo in September when WOZA members participated in a demonstration to mark the International Day of Peace. WOZA and Men of Zimbabwe Arise [MOZA] organized demonstrations in Harare and Bulawayo. The Harare demonstration involving about 1000 people, and culminating in handing in a petition to officials at the UN offices asking the UN to help restore the health and education sectors, passed off peacefully, without police harassment -this in itself an eloquent illustration that these types of peaceful demonstrations should not be regarded as "opposition forces" and a danger to the public's life, limbs and property. But in Bulawayo the demonstration in which 1300 activists in several separate groups attempted to reach the Mhlahlandlela government complex to present a petition for peace and social justice, was forcibly broken up by riot police who, to the horror of onlookers, viciously beat women and men alike to stop them reaching their target. The beatings resulted in over 20 participants needing medical treatment for injuries including broken limbs.

There was no reason for the police to break up this demonstration - it posed no threat to property, life or limb. Even when police do decide that a demonstration is a "danger" to public peace and security there are set rules for dispersing a gathering - none of which were followed. Was this the "minimum force" said by co-Minister Mutsekwa to be only rarely used in response to demonstrations? A recognised definition of "minimum force" in this context is: "the force required to be applied to reach one's objective, applied with a preventative and not punitive intent, and stopping when it is no longer necessary". Those present at the scene in Bulawayo said that a senior police officer who arrived at the scene was heard to say, "you have not beaten them hard enough, that is why they regrouped, beat them harder." That sounded suspiciously like punitive intent.

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