Zimbabwe’s Human Rights Commission long overdue

And over the past five years, the main opposition political party ‘ the Movement for Democratic Change ‘ and various non-governmental organisations have bombarded international treaty bodies and organisations to which Zimbabwe is a signatory with reports of alleged human rights violations by Harare. These organisations, which average two to every category of human rights, have gone on an unprecedented assault of Zimbabwe’s human rights record at various international forums and treaty bodies to which Harare is a signatory, filing an average of three fabricated human rights complaints every month. Over the past five years, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) received thirteen communications filed by so-called civil society groups against the Government of Zimbabwe, while the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Commission has also been similarly bombarded with such allegations. For the first twenty years of independence, the Government did not seem to have put a foot wrong in all its dealings with stakeholders at home and players on the regional and international scene. The Government was lauded as one of the most progressive in the developing world with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe winning numerous accolades for his statesmanship, the way he managed the post-independent economy and the policy of reconciliation. The British monarchy even felt it worthwhile to confer him with a knighthood as one of the most progressive leaders to come out of the developing world. All that changed, however, when the Government decided to embark on the land reform programme to address one category of human rights that has always been left out in the parochial western neo-liberal discourse of rights ‘ the economic rights Zimbabweans had been denied over 110 years of colonial dispossession. As soon as the Zimbabwean government expressed its intentions to acquire white-held farms without compensation, western nations were up in arms in line with their axiom that ‘a right ceases to be a right when it infringes on the rights of others.’ They claimed that the restoration of the economic rights of the disadvantaged black majority impinged on the property rights of their kith and kin on the farms. Overnight, Mugabe was portrayed as an ogre and his Government and as a violator of human rights. The western nations promptly sponsored a glut of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that flooded Zimbabwe, most of which deviated from their humanitarian brief to openly dabble in opposition politics. What is noteworthy is that these complaints were filed without exhaustion of local remedies, with the groups claiming that there were no effective remedies to address alleged human rights violations in Zimbabwe. The detractors are so organised and well funded that they can afford to prepare reports every month. The fabricated reports are distributed widely and are part of the material that is used to denounce Zimbabwe’s human rights record and are used as ammunition by detractors in their attempts to have the country placed on the United Nations agenda as a pariah state. Because of these reports, Zimbabwe has been kept under international scrutiny with endless envoys being dispatched to Harare to investigate the alleged violations. Last year alone Zimbabwe played host to four envoys; Tim Morris of the World Food Programme, Anna Tibaijuka Kajumulo and Jan Egeland from the UN and Tom Bahare Nyanduga from the ACPHR. The concerted campaign by these sponsored organisations that also gave themselves the right to present reports at international forums is the reason why the Government has decided to establish the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) that will be mandated to promote and protect human rights of all people in the country. This is not to say that all along Zimbabwe has not been protecting the rights of citizens for as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a number of UN human rights instruments, the country has always been committed to the protection of human rights, and today it stands accused because of its resolve to restore the economic rights of the people. At international level, Zimbabwe is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Convention on The Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. At regional level, the country is party to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. All these international and regional instruments are predicated on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is itself enshrined in the Bill of Rights provided for in the Zimbabwean Constitution. These instruments require Zimbabwe to protect and promote all the rights enshrined therein. The ZHRC, would thus, not just be a Zimbabwean initiative as similar institutions have been established in neighbouring countries like Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa. National human rights institutions are, however, a relatively new phenomenon whose existence is not provided for under any international or regional instrument, as such they were not provided for under the constitutions of all countries that established them. These countries either had to embark on constitutional amendments, to make the Commissions constitutional or proceeded by way of acts of parliament to make the institutions statutory bodies. Zimbabwe has opted to make the proposed ZHRC a constitutional body, which is why the Constitutional Amendment (No.18) Bill is in the pipeline. Though they are relatively new, national human rights commissions can be traced back to the UN Economic and Social Commission Resolution 2/9 of 1946 which conceived them as vehicles for working with the UN in the monitoring and implementation of human rights standards. In 1979 the United Nations urged all member states to take necessary steps to create and improve conditions for the establishment of National Human Rights Institutions. The UN General Assembly’s resolution 41/129 of December 4, 1986 and other subsequent resolutions further developed the mandate of the human rights institutions. However, for member states of the African Union, national human rights institutions emerged after 1990. These institutions were established in the form of commissions, as opposed to ombudsmen. The composition and mandate of the national institutions, which is generally acceptable, is as provided in the UN General Assembly Resolution 48/134 of 1993, titled the Principles Relating to the Status of National Human Rights Institutions (the Paris Principles). According to these principles, a national human rights institution is an independent institution that is created constitutionally or by an act of Parliament and comprises of members appointed from a cross section of the community engaged in human rights cases. The constitutive legislation makes provision for the appointment of the members and their tenure of office. Zimbabwe’s Minister of Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Patrick Chinamasa has since assured the nation that the ZHRC would be constituted in the same way members of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission were selected, and the body would enjoy the same independence enjoyed by the judiciary. It is envisaged that the ZHRC would maintain contact with government as well as ‘civil’ society and other groups directly or indirectly involved in the promotion and protection of human rights. It should also maintain contact with other national human rights institutions and intergovernmental bodies in order to increase its effectiveness. With the way Zimbabwe is targeted by detractors who attempt to soil its human rights profile at various forums, the ZHRC is an indispensable institution that should buttress all the structures currently in place to protect the rights of citizens. According to Chinamasa, the institution can be answerable to parliament, or to the President but would be distinct from all other ministries and departments. The ZHRC would complement Government’s efforts, image and goodwill in the promotion and protection of human rights. The frequency of cases of alleged violations of human rights will be minimised since no individual or organisations will be able to lodge a complaint with the African Commission without exhausting local remedies as provided under Article 56 of the ACHPR. In addition, this will reduce or clear the number of cases pending against Zimbabwe before the regional institutions and thus enable government to concentrate on protecting the rights of citizens. By incorporating all stakeholders and requiring affiliation from organisations involved in human rights work, ZHRC will open up dialogue not only between the state and the respective treaty bodies but will also create an atmosphere conducive to dialogue between the state and civil society. This is will go a long way in lowering or removing the current levels of mistrust between the Government and NGOs. ZHRC would also make inroads in areas that have up to now been the domain of civil society and would thus mend the name and reputation of the government, by engaging regional and international human rights treaty bodies and institutions. Such an institution should, however, never be a lap dog of the Government, but should be a watchdog capable of biting any violator of other peoples’ rights regardless of his/her standing in society.

April 2006
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