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Pattern of suppression in Zimbabwe a concern for RFK Center
Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights
April 02
, 2013

A delegation organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) recently concluded its mission to Zimbabwe. The delegation comprised Kerry Kennedy (United States), President, RFK Center; Santiago A. Canton (Argentina), Director, RFK Partners for Human Rights; Alfre Woodard (United States), actor and activist; Maureen White (United States), former Senior Advisor on Humanitarian Issues in the Office of the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan; Jorge Taiana (Argentina), Director General of the International Centre for Political Studies at the San Martin University in Argentina and former Minister of Foreign Affairs; Scott and Christy Wallace (United States), Co-Chairs, Wallace Global Fund; Jeffrey Smith (United States), Advocacy Officer, RFK Center; and Stephanie Postar (United States), Advocacy Assistant, RFK Center.

The purpose of the RFK Center delegation was to assess the human rights situation in the current political environment, and in so doing, identify ways to assist the country’s stakeholders to ensure the active participation of civil society in a peaceful election. The delegation met with a range of civil society leaders, legal practitioners, human rights defenders, and government officials, including Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-N) President Welshman Ncube. Outreach to leaders from the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), including President Robert Mugabe, the Co-Home Affairs Minister, and the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), was unsuccessful. “The RFK Center delegation extends our sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to speak candidly about the prevailing conditions in Zimbabwe,” said Kerry Kennedy. “We hope that our visit will positively contribute to the ongoing discourse about the country and help to ensure the conditions for credible elections later this year."

First and foremost, the RFK Center recognizes the significant advances made towards the protection of human rights in Zimbabwe’s new constitution. A progressive Bill of Rights that accurately reflects international consensus on the importance of both protecting and promoting human rights – from political to socio-economic and the right to development – is particularly encouraging and most welcome. The RFK Center looks forward to the timely implementation of the rights guaranteed in this important document.

During the visit, several concerns arose with regularity, including: 1) a general lack of progress on reforms outlined in the Global Political Agreement; 2) increased intimidation, threats, and violence against civil society; and 3) violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

The main purpose behind the GPA was to both induce and establish necessary reforms in Zimbabwe, thereby avoiding a repeat of the bloodshed witnessed in 2008–9 and lay the foundation for credible elections. Though the agreement was signed over four years ago, the necessary reforms that were expected to address a host of pressing institutional and human rights issues have either not been introduced or are not being implemented. The president continues to command an unchecked monopoly on the military and security forces. In addition, amendments to repressive laws – including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA); the Public Order and Security Act (POSA); the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act; and the Private Voluntary Organization Act (PVO), which places onerous registration requirements on NGOs – have stalled, with little chance of reform before elections.

The work of civil society in Zimbabwe is critical for the upcoming elections. Civil society allows coordination of public interests and concerns and also helps to maintain the free flow of information and association. These elements of society are essential building blocks for political freedom and integral to foster a sustainable democracy. The RFK Center considers the pattern of intimidation, violence, and detention against ordinary employees of civil society organizations and human rights leaders to be a serious obstacle that undermines the current electoral process. Since August 2012, upwards of twenty civil society organizations have been targeted by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). Together with ZANU-PF, the ZRP has threatened to deregister organizations that “deviate from their mandate.” Some of the organizations that have been recently targeted include Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), National Youth Development Trust (NYDT), Counseling Services Unit (CSU), Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (ZESN), Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), and Radio Dialogue.
The clampdown on civic organizations that are engaged in voter registration and mobilization campaigns is particularly worrisome. Organizations such as ZimRights and youth groups like NYDT have been continuously raided, their meetings disrupted, and their leaders arrested on spurious grounds, often on the pretext of “fabricating voter registration documents” and for conducting “activities that threaten national security.”

The RFK Center would like to specifically highlight the arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention of renowned lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa on March 16 as an example of the deteriorating rule of law in Zimbabwe. Ms. Mtetwa was charged with obstruction of justice after demanding a search warrant at a client's home. Ms. Mtetwa would ultimately spend eight days in a cramped cell, despite a High Court ruling that ordered her release. Ms. Mtetwa was ultimately granted bail on March 25. “The fact that the police are targeting these vital and necessary organizations in the months leading up to the elections should be of international concern,” said Santiago A. Canton, Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights. “This systematic assault must cease immediately so as to guarantee the active participation of civil society organizations during this critical point in time.”

The violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are an ongoing and grave concern in Zimbabwe. Last month, the ZRP “banned” shortwave radios, prompting raids on private homes and community radio stations like Radio Dialogue, which is working to raise levels of civic and political awareness in the lead up to elections. Radio Dialogue was accused of “smuggling illegal goods” and for allegedly using radios to incite violence and disseminate propaganda. ZPP was also raided by armed police, who confiscated a number of solar-powered, handheld radios and other office equipment, stating that ZPP was engaging in “espionage” and “activities that threatened national security.”

“This unequivocal attack on grassroots organizations that simply mobilize voters is astounding, due to both its brazen nature and the relentlessness with which the authorities have pursued its leaders,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of the RFK Center. “Together, broad-based civic organizations, youth groups, and independent media, including community radio stations, are necessary to cultivate a democratic conscience and instill democratic values throughout the world. It is reprehensible and highly unfortunate that authorities in Zimbabwe are actively working to counteract this necessary building block for long-term, genuine democracy.”

The RFK Center is profoundly concerned about the systematic repression of civil society in violation of its international human rights obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The pattern of suppression, including the criminalization of human rights defenders, represents clear violations of the rights to freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, and imperils the rights of all Zimbabweans to participate freely in the government of their country. The RFK Center respectfully reminds authorities in Zimbabwe of its commitments under the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, specifically Article 4, which stipulates that “human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are principles guiding the acts of its members.” The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) recently called upon all states parties to “[r]espect their obligations under the African Charter, in addition to other regional and international human rights conventions, and take all necessary measures to preserve and protect the credibility of the electoral process.” The ACHPR specifically called upon Zimbabwe “to give effect to its obligations under the African Charter in accordance with Article 1, including in areas of free participation in the government.” Similarly, a group of three UN Special Rapporteurs in late February urged Zimbabwe to “ensure everyone’s voice is heard, in view of the recurrence of acts of intimidation and harassment against those exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, which are essential components of democracy.”

The lack of compliance with GPA agreements, the increased systematic intimidation, threats, violence, and arbitrary detention of human rights activists and civil society leaders, and the violations of freedom of expression and access to information has severely compromised the electoral environment in Zimbabwe. The RFK Center strongly urges the international community and SADC leaders in particular to engage the inclusive government and civil society to expedite the implementation of agreed GPA reforms and actively cultivate an electoral environment that is consistent with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

In the coming months, the RFK Center will take stock of the many lessons learned during the delegation and produce a comprehensive report that will assess the overall human rights situation in Zimbabwe.

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