Storm over Human Rights Commission

Storm over Human Rights Commission

Mugabe's plans to establish a human rights body greeted with contempt.


HARARE - A proposal by President Robert Mugabe's government to establish a Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission has been greeted with wid

espread scorn and cynicism by rights groups who have been protesting the administration’s extra-judicial killings and other forms of oppression for decades.

“In Zimbabwe’s body politic the history of [government-appointed] commissions, more so on such contested issues as human rights, is fraught with irregularities,” said Phillip Pasirayi, director of information of Crisis In Zimbabwe, a coalition of more than 350 civil society organisations advocating human rights and good governance.

“After the massacre and torture by state security agents of thousands of Zimbabwean defenceless citizens in Matebeleland and Midlands provinces during the early Eighties, President Mugabe appointed a commission led by Justice Chihambakwe to investigate human rights abuses, but decades have passed without the report being made known to the public.

“It is this lack of political commitment and sheer Machiavellian tendencies that will render the Human Rights Commission debate another monumental failure … It is yet another attempt by the ruling elite to hoodwink the Southern African Development Community, SADC, the African Union, AU, and the entire international community that Zanu (PF) is reforming and that [Zimbabwe] should be embraced as a democratic country.”

Some responded to the announcement with fresh calls for the United Nations Security Council to refer Mugabe to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to be investigated for crimes against humanity. “He ranks on the same level with Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Alexander Lukashenko and their kind,” said Zimbabwean human rights activist Lynn Mhlanga. “Therefore he can be indicted.”

Justice Minister Chinamasa, who has frequently attacked civil society groups for their “threats to peace and security in Zimbabwe”, said the new Human Rights Commission would be part of the ZANU PF government’s “quest to create a culture of human rights”.

Chinamasa said the decision to create the commission had been made following a flurry of “manufactured” reports on human rights abuses by non-government organisations over the past six years. “They [the NGOs] manufacture and peddle false allegations,” said the justice minister who added that they were aimed at attacking Mugabe and his government. He said the creation of the commission would require an amendment to the constitution.

On June 21, Chinamasa launched another blistering attack in Geneva on Zimbabwe’s civil society at the inauguration of the United Nations’ new Human Human Rights Council. In a speech that portrayed ZANU PF as the victim of non-government organisations, Chinamasa urged the UN council to prohibit direct funding by developed countries of NGOs working in the field of human rights and governance in Zimbabwe and other African states.

Fambai Ngirande, spokesman for Zimbabwe’s umbrella National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, said Chinamasa’s demand was totally cynical. Ngirande said ordinary Zimbabweans were heavily dependent on support from NGOs because the government has failed to supply the basic needs of its citizens.

Dismissing the commission as “a public relations gimmick to spruce up the battered image of the government”, the Harare-based Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, ZimRights said that if Mugabe was serious about promoting human rights he would repeal the rafts of repressive legislation he has introduced, limiting press freedoms and the right to assemble, and begin to honour international human rights instruments to which the government is a signatory.

The National Constitutional Assembly – a civic group campaigning for a new democratic constitution – issued a statement expressing outrage at the government’s proposal, dismissing its approach as “piecemeal, tokenist and undemocratic”. The NCA added that the Human Rights Commission would “merely serve as an additional bureaucratic ruling to prevent and delay Zimbabweans from mounting human rights complaints in the international arena which offers their only hope”.

Crisis In Zimbabwe said the government’s proposal had not been made in good faith. “The fact that the executive, in this case President Mugabe, will have the power to appoint the commission when he is one of the accused makes the whole proposal ridiculous,” spokesman Itai Zimunya told IWPR. “What we call for is a new democratic constitution because we can’t talk of a Human Rights Commission while news dissemination is limited in Zimbabwe and right now the government is busy with the Interception of Communications bill.”

The proposed Interception of Communications Law 2006 will empower the chief of defence intelligence, the director-general of the Central Intelligence Organisation, the national police commissioner and the commissioner-general of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to intercept telephone, e-mail and cellular phone messages. It will also give state agencies powers to open mail passing through the postal and courier services. It stipulates that operators of telecommunications services will be compelled to install software and hardware to enable them to intercept and store information as directed by the state. – IWPR

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