Appointed to disappoint: Human Rights Commission

One can only imagine the anger and indignation on Jacob's face (Genesis 29) when, after seven years of dedication, commitment, waiting and hard toil for Rachel, he was deceived into marrying Leah.

That single act of deception compelled him to marry two wives by default. Similarly, those who eagerly anticipated the inception of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission may soon be shocked to learn that what they have been given is not the beautiful Rachel they aspired for but the weak eyed Leah instead.

For far too long Zimbabweans have been waiting for the establishment of an impartially constituted and entirely objective human rights commission to investigate perennial abuses and to promote human rights in this country.

This expectation was aptly summed up in the following words of National Constitutional Assembly chairman Dr. Lovemore Madhuku: “We want a Human Rights Commission since there are several unreported and unattended to human rights abuses since 1980 but especially in the last six years. But the Commission we want is one which all people will claim ownership to, not this one which (Minister) Chinamasa and (President) Mugabe are planning.”

Generally defective

This after the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Patrick Chinamasa, announced to the state media (Sunday Mail 26 March 2006) that the Zanu (PF) politburo had endorsed proposals to set up a human rights commission in Zimbabwe. However, the process adopted for its establishment has been generally defective and fails to live up to basic expectations.

The simple fact is that, while human rights abuses continue to escalate unabated, the commission has yet to get off the ground. It is difficult to argue that the delay or unwillingness to get it operating has not been deliberate. It may very well be that this so-called Human Rights Commission will go to the grave without having achieved anything at all of real substance in a country desperately in need of such an institutional safeguard.

Meanwhile, the constitution-making process led by COPAC has eventually taken off, making way for the possible adoption of a new constitution within the next few months. However, in the unlikely event of a people-driven constitution being drafted without biased political interference, it seems that the new constitution will not make provision for a human rights commission.

If provision is not made for one, then the danger is that our efforts at creating institutions that would initially help in the restoration of democracy and subsequently sustaining it would be hugely frustrated. If provision is made for it, the commission would have to be swiftly set up in line with the stipulations of that new constitution.

No intention

It can be argued that neither the inclusive government nor the government before it have ever had the slightest intention of taking the importance of a human rights commission to heart. As already mentioned, the idea apparently got the backing of the then Zanu (PF) government in 2006 but no human rights commission was put in place until the Constitution Amendment Act No. 19 of February 2009.

Even then, nothing was done to get the commission off the ground until September 2009 when the Parliamentary Committee on Standing Rules and Orders merely short-listed candidates for the commission. A month later, a list of sixteen nominees was submitted to the President in line with the constitutional provisions but, unsurprisingly, no appointments were made until March 2010.

A closer look at the appointments clearly indicates that they failed to meet the criteria set in the constitution, a fatal and arguably deliberate error that will prevent it from executing its mandate.

To date, there is no enabling act that sets out the scope, extent and limitations of the functions and role of the commission. Such an act will be critical in giving clarity on what the commission can and cannot do in light of the broad and generalized provisions in the constitution. As well, the act will be crucial in setting out the structure and function of the secretariat of the commission and its conditions of service.

Ultimate check point

Simply put, the act will be the ultimate check point in relation to defining and ensuring that the independence, impartiality and security of the commission is protected, as well as setting out the parameters of how its mandate can be achieved. Without it, the commission will be blindly groping its way through empty darkness in a desperate bid to clutch at something of value.

As early as October 2009, the government, through the President, stated that the Human Rights Commission Bill would be presented to parliament for enactment. It is one of the bills that were included in the government work plan for 2010 but, as yet, nothing has been done to have it presented before parliament for debate.

In the prevailing circumstances, it is unlikely that such a bill will ever be tabled before parliament any time soon, given that almost all parliamentarians are currently actively involved in the ongoing COPAC outreach process. After this process is done, the focus will most likely be on pushing for a referendum for a new constitution.

No hope

Consequently, there is clearly no hope that the Human Rights Commission Bill will see the light of day any time soon which further dims the prospect of the current commission being able to achieve anything at all.

There are other factors, not least severe budgetary constraints which have the direct effect of crippling the ability of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission to execute its mandate. The reasonable conclusion to draw in these circumstances is that the current Human Rights Commission is, sadly, set for failure even before it has even begun to operate.

If a human rights commission is to provide any meaningful contribution at all to the cause of human rights in Zimbabwe, it can only be under a new dispensation as the basics required for its effective operation have yet to be put in place. – Union for Sustainable Democracy

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