Forced Disappearances: A crucial issue for the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC)

In international human rights law, a forced disappearance (or enforced disappearance) occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person's fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law. In other words, forced disappearances occur in circumstances of the unacknowledged arrest, detention, or abduction of persons by state agents or with state acquiescence. In Zimbabwe, state agents acting with the acquiescence of the state carried out many of the forced disappearances.

President Robert Mugabe

President Robert Mugabe

Forced disappearances are a legacy of President Robert Mugabe’s more than three decades of the brutality on dissent and suspected foes. They have affected the urban and rural alike and have perpetuated the intensity of fear about the regime’s shenanigans on those who wish to offer different views about governance.

In the context of Zimbabwe’s troubled past, members of the security forces have been used to abduct civilian activists and those who would have crossed the regime’s path in broad daylight. This brief condemns the provision in the constitution that sets out the establishment of the Peace Commission and the subsequent bill to operationalise the commission for their silence on forced disappearances. If implemented well, the Peace Commission may offer a chance to alleviate the suffering to the many people who suffered at the hands of the Mugabe regime, but offers nothing and provide no answers to families of the missing.

I will not be addressing the legal aspects of the Commission and its concomitant legislation in the form of the National Peace and Reconciliation Bill. In my opinion, this has received adequate attention through organizations such as Veritas,  Parliamentary Legal Committee, National Transitional Justice Working Group, and other democratically oriented organizations. I am just saddened by the fact that the constitutional provision and the bill are all silent on forced disappearances. This is a crucial issue that should not be left to the discretion of the commission.

Morally speaking, the commission looks ineffective in promoting healing, peace, reconciliation, coexistence and social cohesion. Considering that the commission appears to be pro-government as commissioners are appointed by the state, which is an alleged perpetrator in forced disappearances, chances are this issue will never be addressed by the commission.

Failure to address an important matter such as forced disappearances does not build confidence in the whole peace and reconciliation process. In fact, it promotes the view that those whose loved ones disappeared will never find closure because their issues are not part of the agenda or mandate of the commission. This is not only a travesty of justice, but it is tantamount to condoning forced disappearances by the Mugabe regime. Many households suffered irreparably after their only breadwinners disappeared either because they held a different political view or they were suspected to be politically incorrect.

Forced disappearances remain a feature of the Mugabe regime as a result of the impunity given to the perpetrators. Victims of enforced disappearances include the rural and urban poor, journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.  The more compelling reason why forced disappearances cannot just be wished away is that the victims have gone missing in the hands of the state, and some kidnap victims died or were killed in captivity or detention and remain unaccounted for.

There is no official record of forced disappearances at the moment, but the number is vast considering that people would disappear and never to be seen again. While victims such as Itai Dzamara, Rashiwe Guzha and the like made headlines after their abductions, they have never been accounted for to date. Many others did not make any headlines but merely vanished at the instigation of ZANU-PF in rural areas. There are also many others who died mysteriously either in detention or out of detention. It is my argument that the Peace Commission should address these issues because the families are not convinced by the “official reports” about these deaths. Doubting families should be given the benefit of the doubt and institute their investigations to find closure.

Many people disappeared without a trace during Gukurahundi, and many of them remain unaccounted for to this day. Because the alleged perpetrator is the current government, it did not bother to keep records of the forced disappearances. The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) needs to address this issue as part of healing Zimbabwe. The constitution provides that the Commission should: bring about national reconciliation by encouraging people, to tell the truth about the past and facilitating the making of amends and the provision of justice. Unfortunately, there are no specific operational activities in the bill that purport to operationalise this provision. This provision should be expanded to encourage people, especially affected families, to speak the truth about forced disappearances.

In the absence of addressing forced disappearances, there is little peace to talk about as we go forward. Survivors of the victims remain bitter, and some may develop revenge attitudes, forcing them to take the law into their hands. We all know that the state has and continues to protect the perpetrators of these heinous acts. Without addressing the issue of forced disappearances and mysterious deaths, victim families lack proper closure that might ease their grief and losses.

I am cognizant of the possibility that with the brutal regime in power, the perpetrators will remain at large or enjoy high levels of impunity. Moreover, under such circumstances, efforts to seek information about forced disappearances often provoke stigmatization, threats, and violence. However, for how long should victim families stay in limbo – torn between the desire to know the truth and their fear of what might happen to them? Understandably, the torment of the absence of a loved one adds the sorrow of doubt and fear to many families.

While this may not be an easy process, addressing the issue of forced disappearances provides an opportunity for the victim families to play an active and important role in the peace process. This is important in promoting not only confidence building in the process but also measures and institutional changes to alleviate the suffering of the families of the missing.

I am suggesting the following strategies in dealing with forced disappearances by the Peace Commission:

  • The Commission should engage the families of those who disappeared to come up with plans for confidence building and measures for institutional changes to alleviate the suffering of the families.
  • The commission should promote interaction between family members of the missing, civil society, and the state to open opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, and implementation of any measures taken to promote healing and closure to the families.
  • The commission should establish immediate steps to locate and identify the missing for the purpose of according them a decent burial or a dignified return of their remains.
  • The Commission should devise an approach and measures to deal with implementation challenges which include a paucity of information, geographic and technical barriers to finding and identifying the missing, uncoordinated data management systems and weak interinstitutional collaboration, stigmatization of and security threats to those searching for the missing, and strained relationships between victims and the state.
  • The commission should also be ready to address administrative challenges including victims’ accumulated frustrations and lack of trust in the state.
  • The commission should address a history of indifference and neglect, an institutional structure that has failed to protect citizens, and state complicity in forced disappearances. Family members of the victims perceive that bureaucratic needs often have priority over the needs of the relatives of the missing.
  • The commission should make concerted efforts to ensure greater participation by family members, state protocols that recognize the dignity and preferences of the victims’ families, timely compliance with culture, tradition or religion, and reliable communication channels to mend this broken relationship.

The establishment of the peace commission is not the panacea to the problems that our beloved nation experienced for decades. However, it is a step in the right direction in providing space for healing, peacebuilding, reconciliation and social cohesion. Creating such a space, with all the attendant problems and challenges, can help build trust between the state and the civil society. While I doubt whether the commission will do much in a period of ten years and not sure how far back in history it has to go, it’s handling of the issues I raise here and others provided for in its mandate could generate greater public confidence in the peace process. Engaging victims in the design and implementation of the measures and providing timely and efficient remedies to individuals and communities are essential building blocks for peace. Moreover, formal consultations with families or relatives of the missing will ensure the effectiveness of the process and help repair relationships damaged by the forced disappearances.

Dr Sheunesu Hove, Principal Director at Hove Peace Building International,, [email protected]

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