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ZimRights case: The importance of solidarity in strengthening protection of Human Rights Defenders in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
January 30, 2013

The recent incarceration of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) Executive Director Mr Okay Machisa highlights the threats which Human Rights Defenders (HRD's) face in Zimbabwe as the country prepares for major political processes. The incarceration shows a worrying trend for which Zimbabwe has become notorious in previous years. On the other hand, the timely response by both the local and international communities, underscores the role played by solidarity in addressing the threats that HRDs are all too often subjected to in Zimbabwe.

ZimRights Director Mr Okay Machisa was freed from Harare Remand Prison on Tuesday 29 January, where he had been incarcerated since Monday 14 January 2013 when he was arrested by the police. Mr Machisa was arrested on Monday 14 January 2013 and charged with contravening Section 31, 136 and 137 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. Founded in 1992 for the sole purpose of ensuring that the Zimbabwean citizens are informed about human rights and are empowered to defend their own rights, ZimRights undertakes flagship advocacy projects both at grassroots and policy levels. ZimRights has undertaken grassroots advocacy against torture in most parts of Zimbabwe, where they captured hundreds of testimonies of torture victims. As part of its community development mandate, ZimRights has worked tirelessly to encourage dialogue in communities, challenge the culture of impunity and for citizens' participation at policy levels.

ZimRights' key result area of raising public awareness of individual rights and enhancing the capacity of the civil society to advocate for/exercise its rights through grassroots sensitisation campaigns and consultations throughout different provinces of Zimbabwe is ever more crucial at this stage, given the rising tide of voter apathy.

It is therefore important that ZimRights's work aimed at empowering a citizenry able to demand human rights protection, is protected, since studies suggest that there is a close correlation between the respect of fundamental rights and the outcome of an election. The exercise of fundamental freedoms such as association & assembly, expression and human dignity which ZimRights fight for are a pre-requisite to a free, fair and credible election in Zimbabwe. A constant assault on these freedoms would increase voter apathy due to fear.

It was pleasing to note that the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights issued a statement on 18 January 2013 condemning the attacks against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment. In doing so they expressed their concern about the crackdown on non-governmental organisations and dissenting voices seen as critical of President Robert Mugabe's rule and apparently politically motivated prosecutions, ahead of the elections which are expected to take place later this year.

More importantly, and in-keeping with their tradition, Zimbabwean based human rights defenders strengthened their position through the strength of coalition solidarity. The collective civil society voice and excellent of work by a posse of dedicated lawyers proved that although justice is often slow in Zimbabwe, solidarity is crucial in times of persecution and can be an effective means of demanding state accountability.

So much is at stake in Zimbabwe as the country prepares for the constitutional referendum and election. The role of human rights defenders to ensure that people register to vote, actually go to vote and protect their vote is also increasingly becoming critical. Both local and international stakeholders can and should play a crucial role in strengthening this critical sector, mainly through:

  • Timely and proactive interventions by the United Nations including solidarity statements by the OHCHR and timely response to concerns by the office of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders under the UN Declaration on HRDs of 1998.
  • Timeous response to concerns by African regional political and human rights mechanisms such as the ACHPR and SADC.
  • Political support, timely public declarations and statements of concern in respect of individual cases by the European External Action Services (EEAS) and operational support for Zimbabwean HRDs by the European Commission.
  • Provision of support for the promotion of democracy and human rights by the European Instrument for Democracy & Human Rights (EIDHR).
  • Advocacy aimed at state authorities to free NGO's operating space and legal advocacy.
  • Bilateral diplomacy.

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